Multiple considerations on love bubble beneath the surface text of Akwaeke Emezi’s romance novel, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty. So let’s get into some of them.
I have meditated on love — and its perversions, as philosopher Frantz Fanon would say — for much of my life. After all, resistance is an endeavor of love, and life has given me, and the communities I’m a part of, a lot to resist. Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to romance. I think the genre can serve as narrative praxis, because the core of romance is relationship, and fiction allows writers to engage with what has been “fictionalized” in this realm. Like love.
Oppression isn’t just impositions on external systems and places; it’s internal, too. Oppression affects our relationship to ourselves and each other. Who and how we love is far too often used as an excuse to subjugate. Our love can be the difference between life and death. Life being possibility and death being absence. Erasure.
As queer people, we witness the ways narrative — stories about who and how we are — feeds the hysteria used to justify legislating our lives to impossibility. In Texas, where I grew up, Governor Greg Abott recently impositioned Child Protective Services to investigate parents of trans kids — particularly kids receiving gender affirming care — citing “abuse.” In my birth country Nigeria, the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, and other laws that subject queer people to violence, use the term “vagabonds” to further stigmatize queer people.
So, narratives about us can hurt us, but narrative can also be where we’re made real again. Queer romance is often the home for our impossible selves, where we live and love freer than we can in physical form. Because of this, queer romance can also function as the manifestation of collective yearning.
Feyi, the novel’s bisexual protagonist, strives to honor her desire. Desire fuels action and creation, which is life itself. For Feyi, this way of living comes after years of numbness. She has been numb since her husband’s death five years before the start of the novel. Grief has a tight grip. It takes time to unclasp your life from its fingers, and time is an expensive privilege. Feyi’s time is partially bought by life insurance money, and that’s painful enough to drive a lot of people into a self-sabotaging spiral. Valid. Feyi doesn’t do that though.
Instead, she makes art and smokes and feels her way through the grief and pain. At the start of the book, Feyi is making decisions — sometimes risky ones — because she’s healing, not because she’s trying to avoid her pain. Feyi might be messy, or even rash, but she’s intentional as fuck. She makes her choices and owns them. Heroine material.
Standing by Feyi is her best friend Joy. Feyi’s healing isn’t only in her romantic relationships. In fact, Feyi’s center is her friendship with Joy. Emezi layers years of intimacy and accountability into their lines of dialogue with skill. After her husband Jonah’s death, Feyi and Joy move in together and spend their first summer releasing their old selves together. They smoke together and change hairstyles, and when Joy asks if they’re having a quarter-life crisis, Feyi responds that they’re too old for that — lol — but also that they are “figuring out how to survive a world on fire,” which is what a lot of my friendships feel like these days. They maintain their commitment to figuring shit out together. When Feyi opens up to Joy about Alim, her best friend’s response is quick and honest: “this is the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard.” But Joy implores her to talk for real and provides caring feedback, too: “I’m never here to judge you, babe. You made a new friend, and yeah you have a pretty disastrous crush on him and it will probably tear apart his family if anything happens … but that’s still a friend who knows a little bit about what you’re going through.”
When Feyi first talks to Joy, she’s ready to be called crazy and dismissed, but instead what she gets is: “Fuck it, live your best life boo.” After all, “No one’s gonna die, shit.” Maybe I’m also chaotic, but this sounds like most of my advice. Do your genuine best to be authentic and not harmful, and live your life from there.
Their support of each other isn’t one sided. The novel is from Feyi’s perspective, so we get to see how often her thoughts are centered in her care for Joy. They know each other well. When Feyi asks questions Joy isn’t ready to confront, Feyi picks up on her friends’ non verbal cues with ease: “She could feel a cloud gathering around Joy, so she changed the subject quickly before it grew to gray, to heavy.” After Joy cousels Feyi through another Alim-Nasir related panic, it’s Feyi’s turn to hold her friend, and part of that involves choosing how to respond intentionally. In Feyi’s case: “Feyi bit her tongue. She wanted to tell Joy that it didn’t have to keep being like this, but it would sound too much like a lecture and Joy didn’t need that on top of her hurt.”
They both work to show up for each other, and their friendship thrives for it. This novel is a love story between Feyi and her would-be suitors, but it’s also a love story between Feyi and Joy.
Speaking of suitors, there are many. Feyi tests out one casual suitor before running into potentially-serious Nasir. Feyi is just learning to be flesh again, and Nasir is ready for a marriage. Nasir is intense, which isn’t a bad thing, but he isn’t in control of his own fire. So, they decide to take it slow. It’s a good thing too, because Feyi is soon inundated by her attraction to Nasir’s fine ass daddy, Alim.
Where to start with Alim? The man can cook. He has amazing music taste, and his artistic sensibilities matches Feyi’s, which is important to her. Like Nasir, Alim is intense. Unlike Nasir, who is akin to an active underwater volcano, Alim is a weathered mountain. One Feyi would very much like to climb.
Emezi is an expert at crafting characters and worlds that feel real, even as they’re drenched in fantasy and wanting. Much of Feyi’s experience is dreamlike: first class trips, expansive villas, mingling with high society across continents. But all of this serves as a backdrop to Feyi’s presence in her own life. At several points in the book, where desire and opportunity could easily carry the weight of a risky choice, Feyi pauses to move from stillness, bringing clarity and awareness to the front of the narrative. Emezi’s skillful characterization in combination with the beautiful prose makes this book an immersive experience. An experience no doubt heightened by Emezi’s decisions outside the text, like working with a private chef.
While reading You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, a quote by Toni Cade Bambera came to mind: “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Emezi’s work is often a perfect execution of that sentiment. The immersive ability of their writing allows the radical nature of their worlds to come to full effect. In this novel, Emezi writes toward love that sees and honors our full selves. Love that draws us into safety, growth, and accountability. The plot moves toward hope, yet the story is grounded in an almost somber realism.
Feyi’s story is a love story, and it’s a death story. It’s about endings, release, and what it takes to construct a new self. Her journey to healing isn’t one that seeks to erase old wounds. Instead, Feyi confronts the permanence of death by carrying her grief with her love. Her husband Jonah is her friend, and he stays her friend even in death. Simultaneously, Feyi embraces infinite possibilities of life by following the pull of desire even as she walks with her grief. Mourning, after all, is an alive thing to do.
Since this is a story about love, it’s also a story about hurt. And since this is a story about humans, it’s also a story about harm. The hurt that comes with love is from the vulnerability of free-floating desire. Do you see me?,Do you want me like I want you?, Can I trust you? New love encompasses our clumsy attempts at answering these questions. With time and intention, we get better at loving and responding to hurt. Or we don’t.
Sometimes, when people get hurt, they create a narrative around their experience to justify a violent response. Emezi handles the different presentations of hurt and harm with care and insight. By the end of the novel, we’ve followed not just Feyi but several characters through their own journeys of healing, and self discovery.
There’s a lot of plot in this review, but that’s barely half of what’s in the book.
Go check it out for yourself, then come back and let me know what you think. It’s rare that I find romance novels with love I can recognize. I read the whole book in one sitting. I wasn’t able to set it down. Akwaeke Emezi’s debut romance is a heck of a read. Believe the hype.