Speak No Evil

Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil is the story of two best friends, Niro and Meredith, both high school seniors in Washington, DC. Niro, who carries most of the narrative, is a track star bound for Harvard, but his future starts to be in doubt when his father discovers that Niro is gay. Niro’s father, committed to his traditional Nigerian and Christian culture, is having none of it, and he insists that Niro commit himself to prayer and counseling and avoidance of so-called “sin.”

Of course, it’s not so simple as that. But Niro tries. Having always felt inferior to his older brother, OJ, Niro wants his parents’ approval. But he also craves independence. And much of the first part of the novel, where Niro is the narrator, focuses on his dilemma. How can he honor his parents and be true to who he is?

As all this is going on, Meredith is growing increasingly distant, not answering Niro’s texts, ignoring him at school, even hanging out with one of the boys who bullies Niro. Some tension between them is inevitable, given that they were once considered a couple and Meredith was involved in the chain of events that led to Niro’s father learning he was gay. But it’s still a loss for Niro, as Meredith was someone he could always rely on for support, and now he’s left to figure out these big questions on his own.

In Part 2 of the book, Meredith takes over as narrator, and we learn a bit about how she felt about Niro. But this section, set several years in the future, feels more like an epilogue than part of the main narrative, even though it amounts to about a fourth of the book. I wish this section had either functioned as an actual epilogue, lasting only a chapter, making the book almost entirely Niro’s story — or that it Meredith’s narration could have made up fully half of the novel, adding layers to the narrative. As it is, it’s neither Niro’s story alone, nor Niro and Meredith’s shared story.

Another interesting option would have been to include Niro’s parents as narrators, making it a more of a shared story among many people who cared about Niro, but not always in the right way. There’s a lot of complexity to this story and the way Niro juggles his various identities and loyalties, but it sometimes feels like the book is just skimming the surface.

Still, I enjoyed reading this and was fully invested in Niro’s happiness and growth. I wish it had been a great book, as I could see the potential for greatness here. But it’s still a good book that I was glad to read.

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