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Speak No Evil


Speak No Evil

How do you know where you’re going when you’ve never seen your story told before? What are you running from, what are you running towards, and what parts of yourself do you leave behind when you take off? Uzodinma Iweala’s slender novel, SPEAK NO EVIL, speaks volumes, and reverberates with hard truths about the intersections of race, gender, institutionalized violence and sexuality.

In contemporary D.C., two 18-year-olds navigate these intersections. Niru and Meredith have been best friends for a long time. On the surface, their lives overlap --- the success of their respective parents buys them certain class privileges and affords them the raised expectations of Ivy League-bound youths, full of promise. But when Meredith seeks to turn their friendship into something more, Niru’s long-buried truth crashes to the surface. He is gay, which isn’t a big deal to Meredith and her left-leaning East Coast white sensibilities, but is absolutely devastating to Niru’s conservative Nigerian immigrant parents. Their discovery of his secret is inextricably entangled in his friendship with Meredith, and that fact haunts both teens for the rest of their lives.

"This is a prescient, urgent awakening of a read. Go in with an open heart, but prepare for it to shatter. Be ready to carry Niru and Meredith with you for a long time."

Niru’s parents bring him to Nigeria for conversion therapy. He finds some solace in his parents’ hometown, but also predominantly further isolation. How much easier it would be for him and his family if conversion therapy worked. But, of course, it doesn’t. Niru wants to cut his sexuality away cleanly, to be the son his parents want, but he can’t --- all the more so when he returns home and meets a handsome dancer named Damien.

This is not a straightforward novel or a happy one. Niru tells his own story for the first half of the book, which culminates in an act of violence, desperation and all-too-familiar misunderstanding. Meredith picks up the pieces and narrates the second half, looking back on it six years later. Iweala understands all too well how books are often split into singular issues --- race, class, gender, violence --- and weaves together many of these threads into a savagely realistic story.

I came away from SPEAK NO EVIL galvanized and outraged, but also devastated. Iweala was widely celebrated for his first book, BEASTS OF NO NATION. Expect a narrower focus here, but a no-less wrenching takeaway and consistently luminous prose. His deft writing propels the narrative forward. At times, I did want more --- I wanted more understanding of how Niru kept this truth from himself for so long, and what it felt to experience it, however briefly, with Damien. And yet, Iweala’s voice kept me deeply invested in his project, and I do feel that the moments he left me yearning were carefully and brutally chosen, refusing to give me more than Niru was able to receive.

I love both Niru’s and Meredith’s voices. I could feel her helplessness, desire and well-meaning. I could feel his agony, desperation, and need to run and to keep running. This is a prescient, urgent awakening of a read. Go in with an open heart, but prepare for it to shatter. Be ready to carry Niru and Meredith with you for a long time.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on March 16, 2018

Speak No Evil
by Uzodinma Iweala

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0061284939
  • ISBN-13: 9780061284939