If You’re Only Going to Read One Novel in August, Make It This One

updated Jun 8, 2021
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There’s a lot of great books coming out this month, but if you’ve only got time for just one, “The Death of Vivek Oji” should be it.

The story begins when Kavita opens the door to her house and discovers her dead son, wrapped in a blanket, sprawled on the front steps. “The Death of Vivek Oji” might not scream “beach read,” but it’s a mystery and drama in its own right, its poetic execution making it impossible to bookmark and turn away from. 

Although we know the ending to the story, Akwaeke Emezi’s novel, set in Nigeria, slowly and deliberately unfolds the moments leading up to Vivek’s death. Vivek, who suffers from a mysterious illness that causes blackouts, has secrets his parents either make excuses for, or simply will them not to exist. His long hair that his community says makes him look like a woman, the lipstick he chooses to wear that confounds even those closest to him help unravel a story of gender and sexual identity, redemption, and the consequences of what happens when we turn to look the other way instead of providing guidance and compassion.

In a culture that refuses to acknowledge the existence of an LGBTQ+ community, Vivek has nowhere to go, and nobody to turn to—even his own cousin, Osita, who is in the process of discovering his own sexual identity, oscillates between trying to understand and berating him. Worst of all, Vivek doesn’t have the resources to help him understand what he’s going through (in the novel, Emezi purposely does not use labels like “trans” because they don’t exist in the Nigerian community that they grew up in). 

“I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I don’t have the mouth to put it into words, to say what was wrong, to change the things I felt I needed to change. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing people saw me one way, knowing that that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them,” Vivek narrates in one chapter.

“The Death of Vivek Oji” is a timely read, as transgender stories demand more awareness and attention and cisgender people continue to learn and understand how dangerous it is for trans folks—specifically trans people of color—to merely exist. The Black Lives Matter movement which gained new traction after George Floyd’s murder put a spotlight on “one of deadliest periods” for Black transgender women, per CBS News

“The Death of Vivek Oji” is an intense, gorgeously-written book that, although propelled by death, is a coming-of-age story from a much-needed perspective.

Here are some other great reads this August:

Luster by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s debut novel, “Luster,” follows a young Black artist, Edie, who meets Eric, a man who has a wife and family. Eric’s wife encourages an open marriage, as long as everyone involved follows a specific set of rules. Edie becomes more and more dependent on Eric’s family after she loses her job, and her role subtly shifts. She’s no longer just Eric’s sexual partner, but a friend to Eric’s wife and friend to their adopted daughter. Although “Luster” focuses on human needs and desires (as the title suggests), at the heart of the novel, it’s a story about growing up and learning your purpose and place in the world.

Three Perfect Liars: One Deadly Secret by Heidi Perks

Need a page-turner you can read on the beach (or wherever it’s safe to go these days)? “Three Perfect Liars” is a classic who-dun-it story that focuses on three women who all have motives for killing the victim. Meet Laura, who is ousted from her job by him, the CEO, after returning from maternity leave. There’s Mia, Laura’s replacement who may have some useful secrets she’s purposely buried. And then Janie, who’s the victim’s wife, who gave up her career for him. “Three Perfect Liars” will fill that hole in your heart left when “Big Little Lies” wrapped up after its second and final season.

Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa 

Against the Loveless World” is about a young Palestinian refugee named Nahr whose path is ripped apart. While she yearned for the perfect life (a family and career), her husband abruptly leaves her, leaving her in ruins. She turns to sex work as a desperate attempt to try and piece her life back together. When the Kuwait-native finally arrives in Palestine (after briefly living in Jordan), she becomes a political prisoner—until she joins the resistance. Although the messaging is turbulent and political, “Against the Loveless World” gives readers a lens that focuses on the experience of a woman trying to assimilate into Palestinian culture as she moves forward to find a better life, the one she always dreamed of.