You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty
By Akwaeke Emezi
I received an ARC of You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty from Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.
After Pet and The Death of Vivek Oji, of course I would be reading the latest Akwaeke Emezi. Of course! I was eager to find out what they would do in the realm of romance, a genre of which I desperately need to read more—and the lush cover and title didn’t hurt. But You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty, although beautifully written, features a frustrating lack of conflict, and it glamorizes unhealthy relationships under the guise of true love. It made me feel gross.
Five years after the death of her husband, Jonah (who was apparently perfect in every way and therefore a very boring character; thankfully, he is dead), Feyi is learning to love again. First she dates Milan, who seems pretty decent, and then Nasir, who seems pretty decent, and then, um—Nasir’s father? Who she has known for roughly five minutes? Whose house (located in a tropical paradise) Nasir takes her to, and where she stays free of charge? Sure, it’s a discomforting power dynamic and age difference; sure, the relationship doesn’t have chemistry or a chance to develop over time; sure, Feyi and Alim can’t be bothered to communicate with Nasir or his sister; only one thing matters, according to You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty—he’s hot.
(To be clear: yes, people make poor decisions in real life, and I expect them to make poor decisions in fiction too. But the issue isn’t the decisions—it’s the tacit endorsement of those decisions by the text, and it’s how uninteresting the characters making those decisions are.)
But it’s not just Alim: everyone in this book is beautiful. While I appreciated the affirmations of Black beauty, the apparent nonexistence of non-beautiful people in this world detaches it from reality (it reminded me of HBO’s Insecure in this particular respect, but Insecure has something else going for it, which is that it’s good). The depictions of Feyi’s experiences with the art world also struck me as deeply dishonest—everything she makes is brilliant, and everyone she meets wants to give her outrageous amounts of money for more of her brilliant art. Even if we accept that Feyi is extraordinarily lucky, I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a character who never struggles, has everything handed to them, and shows no self-awareness of that luck.
You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty has one saving grace, which is the quality of the writing. I never had an actively bad time reading it. But the more I think about it, the more it sours and curdles in my brain. Fiction is fueled by conflict and Emezi’s latest is running on fumes, and the characters are not compelling enough to outweigh the damaging and dangerous messages perpetuated here (trauma does not excuse hurting other people!). I recommend Emezi’s previous work, but I can’t comfortably do so with You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty.
Review by Erin Larson