My blog post today is about a book I devoured just this last weekend, and had to write about immediately to try to deal with my obsession with the prose : Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty. While the author is already established in other genres, this is (I believe) their first romance, and I was completely blown away by it. Here’s the cover and blurb to start:
Feyi Adekola wants to learn how to be alive again. It’s been five years since the accident that killed the love of her life and she’s almost a new person now—an artist with her own studio, and sharing a brownstone apartment with her ride-or-die best friend, Joy, who insists it’s time for Feyi to ease back into the dating scene. Feyi isn’t ready for anything serious, but a steamy encounter at a rooftop party cascades into a whirlwind summer she could have never imagined: a luxury trip to a tropical island, decadent meals in the glamorous home of a celebrity chef, and a major curator who wants to launch her art career.
She’s even started dating the perfect guy, but their new relationship might be sabotaged before it has a chance by the dangerous thrill Feyi feels every time she locks eyes with the one person in the house who is most definitely off-limits. This new life she asked for just got a lot more complicated, and Feyi must begin her search for real answers. Who is she ready to become? Can she release her past and honor her grief while still embracing her future? And, of course, there’s the biggest question of all—how far is she willing to go for a second chance at love?
Sometimes when I read, I decide partway through the process that I want to do a blog post, but have a hard time picking a passage, for one reason or another. Not the case here. The passage I’ll be looking at jumped out at me immediately, practically demanding analysis. At this point in the novel, Feyi has been working on an art installation exploring her grief over losing her husband in a car accident (from which she escaped virtually uninjured). She has hung hundreds of wedding rings by wire from the ceiling of a gallery: hidden among them is her late husband’s actual wedding ring, stained with his blood from the accident. In this scene, Alim shows up to see the installation for the first time. I think it’s important to know here that both Feyi and Alim have lived through the traumatic death of a spouse, and a part of their instant connection comes from recognizing something about each other that most people don’t. Here’s the passage:
He was standing on the other side of the mirrored room, his eyes lined with kohl, shocked and wet as rings floated around his head. Feyi couldn’t breathe. His face was raw among the gold, flayed open with feeling, and she knew he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew what it meant that she’d kept it, that she was showing it like this, in a forest of forevers, the one that didn’t happen. As Feyi stared at him, Alim’s hand drifted to his neck, his fingers coal dark against his white tunic. Feyi knew what lay against his throat underneath, that silver ring. It was either his or Marisol’s. She’d never asked which, never said anything about it, really. It was too private, something like that. Unless you were Feyi, and alive, in which case you displayed it to strangers because something inside you had never stopped screaming.
The whole time I was reading this book, I kept returning to the word “sensual” to try to define what impressed me so much about the prose. Certainly it came to mind because the novel is very sexy: there’s a lot of sex in it, a lot of physical attraction, and sensuality is a concept that covers both of those things, for me. But moreso I think that this is a novel that engages the reader’s senses actively. It has prose that asks the reader to think not just about what things look like, but how they sound, taste, smell, and feel. That kind of prose can be lush and beautiful, but it can also be overwhelming, and part of what intrigued me about Emezi’s writing was how they kept so much raw feeling fresh and sharp and structured. This passage was key for me understanding that, because it couples the sensations present on the page with notable absences, and a rigorous approach to sentence structure. So that’s what I want to look at here: the senses that are evoked, and (just as importantly) the ones that aren’t, and how the structure of the prose both highlights and restrains the emotional experience.
The beginning of this passage establishes an emphasis on the visual right away, with its mirrored room. The first thing Feyi notices about Alim’s entrance is his eyes: their lining with kohl seems to echo the rings around the room, and connect him visually to the installation, just as Feyi is connecting visually with Alim. The majority of the images in the passage are visual observations as well: Alim’s face, the blood-marked ring, Alim’s hand and neck, the color of his fingers against the color of his tunic, his throat, his silver ring.
Right underneath these visual descriptors, however, is something very tactile. Alim’s face is “raw” and “flayed open” and his eyes are “wet” – all of which are as much about how a face might feel as how it looks. The ring is marked by blood, which evokes the physical sensation of pain. The rest of Alim’s physical description comes from a moment where he places his hand on his own throat, and presses a ring to it, motions that carry an impression of touch with them. Like so much of this book, each sense that is evoked carries another sense underneath it, layered in with it, making for a rich reading experience that doesn’t overwhelm the reader with a surfeit of individual details.
It’s sometimes harder to pin down, but whatever keeps writing from being too much, whatever makes it what it is not, is just as important as the more visible beauty that makes it what it is. In this case, the sensual omissions from the passage are equally as meaningful as the tactility and visuality that are present for the reader. There are no mentions of either taste or scent, for example. In part, that omission simply corresponds to the way Feyi planned her installation: the rings are meant to be looked at and to brush against the visitor, and so obviously those are the predominant senses with which the reader experiences Alim’s entrance. But also, scent and taste are associated with Alim’s art – his cooking – throughout the book. Excluding them here keeps the passage tight in its focus on Feyi, omitting the things that belong to anyone else, as she explores this intense feeling of finally belonging to herself.
On its own, this kind of sensual engagement, thoughtfully and judiciously presented, can make for truly remarkable prose. But I also don’t want to give the impression that this book is just a pile of feelings to be waded into and sifted through. There’s a rigorous structure to the prose on a sentence level that lets all the soft and less-structured feelings shine, almost like a setting for a stone. Within this passage, there are two sentences that have a distinctive shape to them – one linear, one more iterative and circular – and I want to take a look at both. Here’s the first:
His face was raw among the gold, flayed open with feeling, and she knew he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew what it meant that she’d kept it, that she was showing it like this, in a forest of forevers, the one that didn’t happen.
The sentence is my favorite of the passage, possibly of the entire book. Part of that is the image of a “forest of forevers,” a metaphor that stands out in prose that is otherwise more focused on the hyper-reality of sensation. And at 46 words, the sentence takes up a whole 1/3 of the paragraph. It has an incredible sense of weight, yet that heaviness is counterbalanced by a brisk sense of linear forward motion. It’s a bit hard to visualize the way I think about the linear movement in this sentence, but my best attempt is below. To start, I’ve bracketed what I think of as the backbone of the sentence- the individual pieces that provide structure, each of which is modified by the clauses the follow them.
[His face] was raw among the gold, flayed open with feeling, and [she knew] he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew [what it meant] that she’d kept it, that she was showing it [like this], in a forest of [forevers], the one that didn’t happen.
If you break the sentence down into component parts, it becomes clear how towards the end of the sentence, each modifying clause contains the next piece of backbone to be modified, so that the prose builds slowly on itself as it moves forward. This is a little bit clearer (I hope) laid out like this:
[she knew] he’d seen the blood-marked ring, that he knew what it meant that she’d kept it
[what it meant] that she’d kept it, that she was showing it like this
[like this] in a forest of forevers
[forevers] the one that didn’t happen
The author writes a lot of beautiful chained-together sentences like this throughout the book, which is a kind of structure that takes a lot of control if you don’t want to lose the reader halfway through. But there are also moments where the linear structure is abandoned for a more iterative mode, circling back to the same idea over and over with subtle and meaningful variations. The most striking one is the repeated idea that Feyi is “herself, and alive.” This formulation appears over and over, mostly concentrated in the chapters leading up to the passage I’m looking at :
“She was hers, she was alive; there was so much to do” (Ch 8)
“And, because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no” (Ch 10)
“… because Feyi was herself, and she was alive, she kept going, holding the books like a secret” (Ch 11)
One of Feyi’s main struggles in the is book how her guilt at surviving the accident, at simply being alive, makes her feel intensely absent and separated from herself. Accepting that she is still herself, and that she is alive, is the heart of the journey that she goes on in this story. I loved seeing that highlighted by this simple iteration, which becomes familiar to the reader the more often it appears. However, iteration for the sake of iteration isn’t necessarily great writing: there has to be something going on behind it. Looking at these iterations of “Feyi, and alive” together, it strikes me that something very different happens at the end of the passage we’re looking at. All of the previous iterations use “she/Feyi” as the primary form of address, but the last one uses “you.”
Unless you were Feyi, and alive, in which case you displayed it to strangers because something inside you had never stopped screaming.
The English language allows for an interesting slippage here, because “you” can be used both as an impersonal and second person address – basically, the word can both mean “one, someone in general” and “you, the person I’m speaking to.” The impersonal “you” offers a kind of alienation from the individual; the second-person “you” brings the reader immediately into the world of the narrative. On one level, the last sentence represents the liminal moment Feyi is at in this passage, deciding whether to retreat from human connection into further impersonality, or let others into her world.
Really, though, what I might love the most about the conclusion of this passage is that there’s instability that demands participation of the reader. I have to decide – I get to decide – if I read this as an impersonal “you,” or if I feel like the passage is talking to me. It’s a grammatical structure that brings me right into the world of the novel just as surely as its sensual images do. This entire book is a masterpiece of judicious application of reflection and feeling, structure and sensuality, and it all works together for one of the most unique bits of prose I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend picking it up.