I’m really glad that I tried this book for myself and wasn’t put off by other reviews I read. With the impression that the opening scene was an offputting mix of sex and death and the central character a transgressive artist who worked in fairly grim media, I picked it up to check for myself before writing a quick note about why I hadn’t read it, and was instead drawn in by the rapid plot development, attractive characters and good writing.

Emezi has published two works of more literary style fiction before this and warns their readers that this is a “romance”; however, it ponders a lot of deep things and although it is at heart a novel about millennials finding their place in the world, it’s thoughtful and considered.

Akwaeke Emezi – “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty”

(11 March 2022, NetGalley)

There was a reason she’d fled from the garden that night, and a certainty that going on an early morning hike alone with this man was terrible idea. And, because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no. ‘Four thirty,’ she replied, with a damned smile and a traitorous chill burning through her veins.

We meet Feyi having an anonymous hook-up at a party in New York, and she does at one point think of the car crash that killed her husband five years ago, but it’s not some kind of “Crash” mash-up of sex and death or anything. It is fairly explicit, and you might wonder why I’m OK with that in this book and not the last read; I can only say that the scenes are shorter here and seem to fit better with the urban and grittier vibe of the book (I’m not using “urban” as code for Black here, please note; the book is set partly among young artists and party-goers in New York rather than nice dog ladies in the South of France and the context does make a difference). She soon moves away from the friends-with-benefits gig with this guy and on to another person from his friendship group. Then her life changes when she’s offered an opportunity to exhibit her art in a big show in the Caribbean, goes there with Second Guy, determined to be her friend and not rush her, and meets his dad. Oops.

So yes, Feyi does sort of hop from man to man but she’s given morals and decentness and panic about falling for someone’s dad when she’s already messed around. The book is full of this angst and it is a bit millennial in that respect, but there’s also a lot of aspirational architecture and food, which is completely fair enough; who doesn’t want to read occasionally about high-end interior decor and amazing birds? The landscape is described beautifully and the supporting cast of characters from the art world are nicely and richly done.

The book is also diverse both in terms of the orientations of the characters (the two main characters could be described as bisexual but don’t describe themselves in any particular terms, there are a couple of lesbians and a gallery attendant who happens to be gay with no fuss made about it) and in terms of the different kinds of love portrayed. Although Feyi has had a sexual encounter with best friend Joy at one point, they’re loving friends now, sharing an apartment and all the details of their lives; Joy is a great conscience and counterpoint to Feyi and their video chats are hilarious, but their friendship is highly important. It’s made very, very clear that Feyi doesn’t need a particular man (or by implication woman) in her life; she has, and is, enough:

It didn’t matter how this went – it couldn’t matter how this went. She had a life in New York. She had Joy, and her work, and it had been enough before this, so it would be enough afterward.

Feyi is ambitious about her art, owns it and takes commissions on her own terms and the thing she really sticks up for when things get tough is her art, not her relationship; I loved this about the book. Her art is big and raw and about grief and hurt; it’s installation art rather than paintings and it uses unconventional media. It’s refreshing to have her discuss her art with a female curator and a female collector, both also with diverse Caribbean heritages, as well.

A good read, one step towards the literary from the straight romance genre still but nicely done by the author, and I would certainly read another of their novels, realising they’re quite different to this one. I’ve added my social justice – race tag to this to remind myself it’s an all-Black cast but there are obviously points made about societal racism, not wanting one’s art to go to an old White male collector, etc.

Thank you to Faber and Faber for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty” is published on 26 May 2022.