This post will contain significant spoilers for Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil.
Speak No Evil, Uzodinma Iweala’s second novel, following thirteen years after his debut Beasts of No Nation, seems at first glance to tread very familiar ground. Alex Preston, writing in the Guardian, found it ‘tentative, less polished, more, in short, like a first novel’ (although what does that mean?). The synopsis may be enough to put some readers off. Niru, the youngest son of Nigerian parents, has grown up in Washington DC, quietly trying to fit in at a predominantly white school while excelling both intellectually and athletically. When he realises he’s gay, his world is turned upside down, especially when his devout father ships him temporarily back to Nigeria for religiously-minded conversion therapy. However, Niru can’t resist nudging at the boundaries of his narrow world, as Iweala captures perfectly in a scene set at a high school track meet: ‘I’m tired of running in circles while thinking that I’m making progress. And yet it is progress. I can see the seconds and milliseconds shed from my time. I cross the finish line before everyone else, accept their smiles and high fives and fist bumps and then line up to do it all again because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I don’t want that life.’ Told by Reverend Olumide, the local churchman who has been overseeing his ‘recovery’, that he should ‘do the things that young men do’, Niru starts drinking heavily at parties for the first time. Leaving one of these parties, he argues with his best friend Meredith, a white woman. A police car turns up when Niru is holding her against a wall, and he is shot dead.
Speak No Evil, then, depicts both the kind of black pain and queer pain that some may feel has been written about enough already, as well as focusing on a typical conservative religious response to homosexuality. And yet I felt that it justified its subject-matter. Part of the reason for this is the simple brilliance of Iweala’s writing. Speak No Evil reads like the best kind of YA – energetic, immediate, funny – while, at the same time, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Both these strands are in play as Niru nervously heads off to meet a Tinder date that Meredith has arranged for him near the beginning of the novel:
‘Ryan’s avatar texted me the next day: we can have coffee and then whatever… Coffee I understood, but the whatever rattled around my head. The word sounded so much like the “whatever” Reverend Olumide railed against from the pulpit on Sundays. You have kids saying whatever, doing whatever, whatever whatever. And then they have boyfriends or babies… Ryan’s text beneath his smiling face flickered before me, coffee and whatever. I’m actually going to do this… And why not? It was just a quick meetup, coffee after practice and then home. There wasn’t going to be any time for whatever.’
Speak No Evil has a simple plot, but its emotions are utterly convincing. By the time Niru was killed, I desperately wanted him to go off to college and have all the boyfriends he could find; Iweala perfectly encapsulates the Greek-tragic inevitability of what actually happens, as Niru realises too late that a society that has all the time in the world for white adolescent mistakes has no room for a single one of his.
All this is to say that I don’t agree with the Guardian reviewer: I think this is the best novel I’ve read so far this year. But this isn’t to say that it’s perfect. For me, Iweala’s major misstep was to have the last third of the book, after Niru’s death, narrated by his friend Meredith. As it transpires, Meredith has been convinced by her parents not to tell the truth about what actually happened just before Niru was shot, and to go along with the official police story that Niru was sexually assaulting her. The rest of the novel sees her struggling with that decision until she finally decides to tell the truth. As this unfolds, we learn that Meredith had kept Niru at arms length for so long because she was unable to deal with his romantic rejection of her, even though she knew he was gay. For me, all of this added up to too much page-time for a straight white character whose voice is already dominant in this kind of story, and who plays into tropes of white female fragility to protect herself. I wondered if this final third might not have been better told in the voice of Niru’s father, who must surely have been suffering a crisis of the soul after pushing his son away so soon before his death, and whose narrative eventually intersects with Meredith’s. I didn’t feel that I needed the glimpse inside her head to know what she was thinking; it was all too evident from what had gone before. Nevertheless, Iweala writes incredible prose, and I’ll certainly be seeking out his debut.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.