Book review: Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala – coming out and coming of age
The son of devoutly religious parents realises he is gay in Iweala’s tentative follow-up to the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation.
It has been 13 years since Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published to extraordinary reviews and a slew of prizes. The book, the moving story of a child soldier, Agu, caught up in an African war of relentless brutality, was turned into a film starring Idris Elba. The film was as forgettable as the book was memorable, highlighting the really remarkable thing about Iweala’s novel – the daring and unusual rendition of the protagonist’s perspective and linguistic register (something that Cary Fukunaga was unable to convey in his film). Agu’s voice in the book is a pidgin English that is, at first, difficult to comprehend, but increasingly forges a kind of compact between character and reader. Language shapes the way we experience the world and the novelty and intimacy of Agu’s voice place the reader in uncomfortable proximity to the violent events of the novel.
The first thing to say about Speak No Evil, Iweala’s follow-up, is that it is both less daring and more familiar than Beasts of No Nation. Iweala was only 22 when his debut was published, but he addressed the ethical and practical challenges of its subject matter with the skill of a master. Speak No Evil, for all the time that has passed, feels more tentative, less polished, more, in short, like a first novel.
Niru’s voice is purposefully naive, full of statements of clunking adolescent self-absorption
Niru, the first-person narrator, lives in a big house in a well-to-do quarter of Washington DC, the son of devoutly religious Nigerian parents: “For all the years they’ve lived abroad, they are still so very Nigerian.” Niru is a senior at high school, has won a place at Harvard, is a star of track and field, just emerging from his big brother OJ’s shadow. The book opens on a snowy day when Niru and his best friend, Meredith, disappear into her equally well-appointed home (her father works at the White House). Meredith makes a pass at Niru, who returns her affections half-heartedly, then confesses he’s gay.
While this may not initially appear problematic, Niru’s parents are deeply conservative. On discovering a phone full of Grindr messages, his father beats him and his mother drags him to church to be prayed for by the sinister and overbearing Reverend Oluminde. Niru is then taken to Nigeria by his father and, over the course of some beautiful descriptive passages, Iweala sets up elegant reflections on questions of home and identity. In Nigeria, the conversion therapy continues under Bishop Okereke, who is cut from the same cloth as Oluminde: “They project warmth like an industrial heater blasting the closest thing to them with too much intensity instead of radiating like the sun that simply draws you into its warmth.”
That quotation might suggest one of the other things that doesn’t quite work in this book. Niru’s voice is purposefully naive, full of statements of clunking adolescent self-absorption and riddled with cliche: cars move “at a snail’s pace”; “I guess the grass is always greener.” Dialogue is unpunctuated and speakers wade in without the distinction of a new line, so that often it’s unclear which of his family members is currently haranguing Niru about his sexuality (or if it’s his own self-punishing internal monologue). Some of the passages in which Niru struggles to come to terms with his attraction to men are well handled, but they feel like they’ve been extended beyond their natural life until repetitions creep in. The reader develops an increasingly desperate wish for Niru to act upon his inclinations rather than simply turning them over in his mind. When the plot does suddenly spring to life, the twist, albeit heart‑wrenching, feels borrowed from another story altogether.
Beasts of No Nation was an astonishingly powerful novel and I’d been keeping tabs on Iweala’s progress. The last I’d heard he was working on an epic, multi-narrative novel of Washington life, following six characters as their paths crossed and diverged. It feels as though Speak No Evil was salvaged from the wreckage of that more ambitious project. At its best, this book reminded me of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a languid, emotional, wilfully adolescent Bildungsroman. That Iweala is a writer of spectacular talents is without question. I only hope we don’t have to wait another 13 years for more proof.
• Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala is published by John Murray (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99