Wednesday, May 25, 2022

‘Bitter’ Review: Akwaeke Emezi’s Brilliant Reminder About the Power of Art

Bitter – the first of three upcoming 2022 books from Akwaeke Emezi – is right around the corner. In it, Emezi brings readers back to the city of Lucille, first introduced in Bitter’s companion novel, Pet. However, this Lucille is quite more incendiary. This prequel/companion follows its title character, Bitter. After growing up in foster care, Bitter is chosen to attend a special school called Eucalyptus. It’s a safe harbor where she can focus on her art. But Eucalyptus rests in the center of chaotic streets, where citizens protest the injustices gripping Lucille. Bitter wants nothing more than to remain inside Eucalyptus. Her friends, though, want to fight for a better world. Soon, Bitter finds herself wondering what her place is in the revolution.

Emezi introduces much to discover with this book. They waste no time establishing major facets of the story, particularly Eucalyptus. I was intrigued about the school’s existence, as virtually everything about it is unknown. No one knows who built it or who funds it. Miss Virtue, the woman who runs the school, provides her own air of alluring mystery. Regardless, Eucalyptus provides a haven for kids who need it the most. Miss Virtue ensures her students are protected and cared for. Despite the heaviness of Lucille, readers feel, on some level, the welcoming nature of Eucalyptus. Emezi utilizes the friends who populate Bitter’s life to solidify that feeling. (Aloe is a personal favorite.)

Bitter is a wonderful character, and Emezi and readers never lost sight of her. First, Bitter’s art illustrates her reluctance – and her power. I loved being able to gain more background about her gift. While Emezi doesn’t focus too heavily on the early years of Bitter’s childhood, they still provide a succinct picture of Bitter’s early art. Readers gain more understanding about how Bitter’s art affects her. It’s a sanctuary when she needs an escape. It also causes isolation, and Bitter’s subsequent moments of loneliness seep through. It’s art that allows all her rage, sadness, and frustrations to literally come to life – for better or for worse.

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There’s much to admire about Bitter, but I was especially struck by her attitude towards everything happening in Lucille. Throughout much of the book, she holds a “well, what’s the point” view, weighed down by the heaviness of Lucille’s troubles. She harbors anger about her generation and the youth in general being the ones who primarily fight back. While it’s apparent Bitter cares about ending injustices, she highlights the fear, anxiety, and guilt that comes with not being out on the streets. Emezi further emphasizes this through the contrasting Assata group. Unlike Bitter, they seem to firmly know their roles. Many of the members push against the nature of Eucalyptus. In doing so, though, Bitter soon learns she’s capable of finding her own way to fight. She can utilize her strengths with her art; it becomes a pivotal (and something akin to divine) driving force.

The fight for justice is never an easy one. We see that in real life. Emezi reminds readers of that. But one of the most striking reminders is the way Emezi explores how justice is won. Assata reflects how many fight back now. They’re fierce and formidable but aim to help rather than intentionally hurt. But near the latter half of the books, readers meet a manifestation of Bitter’s desire to see the fighting in Lucille end. A manifestation that forces examination of its own ethics and morality. It begs the question of how far one is willing to go to see justice served, and whether the means justify the end. Will it be by Virtue or by Vengeance?

Akwaeke Emezi holds a genuine gift for sharing stories that are wholly unique but also familiar. Bitter is no exception. Emezi tells a story that doesn’t shy away in its relevance or the pain behind it. They create a piece of art that is unsettling in the deepest of ways. In that way it’s similar to Pet. But this time, that feeling of danger explodes off the page. Just as Emezi emphasizes the power of art in the book, their words also come with immense potency behind them. It’s potent in its urgency, in its message, and in the way Emezi guides readers through a book that at times feels hopeless as much as it feels hopeful. Bitter is a consuming and timely reminder that perhaps the fighting isn’t all in vain. Lucille’s revolution may be a familiar one, but Bitter is a revolution in and of itself.

Bitter releases on February 15. Pre-order your copy here.

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