A heat wave book if I ever read one. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi is a book that colourfully conjures sun, sweat, and that shimmer in the air on a hot, hot day. Oh, yes, and a little splash of blood, too.
It is the story of Feyi Adekola, an artist living in New York and grappling with the death of her husband in a car accident that left her physically uninjured, save for a scar across her palm. At the beginning of the novel, Feyi is just starting to allow herself to be intimate with others again—physical intimacy only, because emotional intimacy is still too frightening.
Like slippery stepping stones into a pool, she moves from a sexual relationship with the equally emotionally unavailable Milan to a mostly platonic relationship with Milan’s friend Nasir, to a sudden and terrifying plunge into deep waters when she meets Nasir’s father, Alim. Talk about a complicated love triangle.
It’s a book that the author themself firmly states is a romance, not literary fiction. But to me, this just points to the ever-blurring borders of genre and lit fic, because this novel certainly holds its weight among books intended to be literary. For one thing, it holds space for some serious conversations around not only love, but also grief, rage, guilt, and shame. In order for Feyi to grapple with her feelings for Alim, she must confront her own survival and what it means to have lived through the crash that killed her husband.
Emezi’s depictions of grief are layered and feel so true—Feyi oscillates between uncertainty and self-loathing, blinding joy, and roaring anger. The book also begins five years after the accident, and I love that this is a portrayal of how raw grief can feel even after years. Alim is also a character who has survived the tragic loss of a partner, and this shared experience is one of the things that draws the two together and binds them there.
‘I wish I could tell you it gets easier —’— You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty
‘It doesn’t,’ she interrupted.
Alim put his chin in his hand and propped his elbow on his knee. ‘No, no. But it gets…older. It grows with you.’
Feyi looked over at him. ‘How long has it been for you?’
Alim chuckled. ‘Ah. Twenty years, four months.’ He tilted his head to smile at her, boyish in the moonlight. ‘Eight days.'”
Much of this story takes place on an unnamed Caribbean island, and the setting is glorious. Mountaintop and sea, rainforest and heat, all combined with the fact that Alim Blake is a well-known chef, his home is a gorgeous palace, and the man makes a damn good meal. The decadence of it all lends itself well to the romance, but as I said above, nothing is easily won.
Alim drove the car through, and Feyi’s jaw dropped. It looked like a dream. She couldn’t even see the house from the gate, just a long driveway lined with trees filled with pink and white flowers, hummingbirds darting through the air, monkeys peering between the leaves, and the sun washing gold over everything.”— You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty
The whole book is saturated in colour, as well as in evocations of each bodily sense. The exceptional blog Close Reading Romance has a wonderful read on a specific passage that breaks down the way Emezi uses both sensory engagement and sentence structure to achieve the poignancy and beauty of their prose. I walked away from this book feeling like I had been immersed in a gorgeous and vivid landscape that shimmered with feeling. And it was not only the places that shimmered, but the characters as well. Feyi, Alim, Nasir, Feyi’s best friend Joy (who 100% lives up to her name), and even smaller characters like Milan, Alim’s daughter Lorraine, and the art collector Pooja, are nuanced and interesting.
Like all good books, there are moments and lines that made me catch my breath with their unique perspective on something that feels true. The world that Emezi has built here is vibrant and pulses with life—complicated and bright and without easy answers. If you are looking for a romance that has all the heat you could desire, but with a rich interiority and true depth of feeling, look no further.
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So, madness and mess. Something that took up space. Something that felt furiously alive, because survival could be so very, very angry.”— You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty