Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

“We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

– Akwaeke Emezi, “Bitter”.

Review:

To start this review, I have to go back to the first Emezi novel I read, Pet (read that review first!) , about a girl named Jam and an angel she accidentally releases from her mother’s painting. Pet is gloriously strange and mysterious. It hits on themes of pain, abuse, redemption, and reconciliation. It is so much more than your typical young adult novel. So, I was thrilled to see that we get Jam’s mother, Bitter’s, story.

Here we see where Bitter’s name comes from and where the angels come from. Here we learn about the revolution that remade Lucile into a society where Jam could thrive as her authentic self.

Perhaps I went into this book with my expectations too high. I was disappointed to see that this book relied more on tropes and that the encounters with the angels were pushed pretty far back into the story, leaving us with not much time to process their arrival or for them to blend into the story.

Bitter is a student at Eucalyptus, a boarding school for art students. After her childhood in foster care, she really needs a stable and peaceful environment to heal from her trauma and come to grips with who she is and who she wants to be as a person. But Lucile is not peaceful. Asada, a group of teenagers, is fighting a revolution on the streets of Lucile. Why they need to fight this revolution isn’t exactly clear other than some hints at wealth disparity, which we don’t see because of Bitter’s privileged position at school.

It was strange to me that only teenagers were fighting. I get that they weren’t as accepting of the status quo, because that is generally how our younger generations are as well, but the fact that only teenagers had a place in what was supposed to somehow be a viable movement with an actual purpose didn’t make sense to me. The movement never seemed to have a clear purpose and therefore didn’t feel viable to me.

But Bitter’s conflict around the Asada kids and her reasons for not joining them did feel realistic. She stands out as the best character in this story and some of her dialogue with Aloe, her love interest, is wonderful in the way that it exposes how we accept injustice and also how each of us has a different capacity and place in fighting it. We are each no more or less than the other simply because our gifts vary.

In the last third of the story, Bitter’s friend is injured in a protest gone wrong and she unleashes her fury into her artwork. Since she was a child, Bitter knew her blood could bring her artwork to life. She didn’t realize she could serve as a gate to bring forth angels though until she paints Vengeance and calls it forth.

The angels have only one purpose: to hunt those who cause great injustice. But isn’t killing for the sake of killing also an injustice? Do the ends justify the means? Do the Asada kids allow Vengeance to take his retribution and redefine Asada in his wake, or do they choose a more difficult fight, one with compassion for their enemies?

The last third of this book is what fell short to me. Emezi had wonderful things to say, but the silliness of Virtue’s fight against Vengeance and the overall brief cameo of the angels makes them feel like they’re only there to speed the plot along instead of there to tell an integral part of the story. I wish they had been introduced much earlier.

Overall, Bitter is a good addition to the world of Lucile, and despite my disappointment with the pacing of the story and the use of the angels, I am glad I read it. Definitely read Pet first.

Pros:

  • a great exploration of how our individual talents make a whole
  • a look at how to heal the trauma of broken relationships and repair breeches between friends

Cons:

  • pacing issues
  • classic boarding school tropes
  • apparently only teenagers (and a couple teachers and a couple angels) exist in this universe

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐

Recommended For:

  • Those who have read Emezi’s other novels
  • Those looking for something eerie that’s outside of your typical thriller genre
  • Those interested in the folk tales we tell of good and evil
  • Those looking for diverse characters and a complex story

Books to Read if You Loved Bitter:

  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Jam’s daugther’s story) (same author!) (see my review here!)
  • On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (graphic novel with same eerie atmosphere)
  • Once & Future (equally diverse cast with deep questions about justice – a female King Arthur in space!)

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • How can stories be victims of our expectations? Does that say more about the story or more about us?
  • What modern day parallels did you see between the conflict in Lucile and conflicts in our world? What s the author saying about those conflicts?

4 responses to “Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi”

  1. I’m so sorry this book disappointed you. I also hate when tropes are too heavily relied upon. @naturegracereader

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    • It’s okay! Disappointment is part of the process of being a reader. It doesn’t mean the book isn’t important or even that it isn’t a wonderful book for others or a valuable part of the Pet universe. I’ve got another Emezi book to start soon, so I’m going to go into it with no expectations so that the book can take me away completely!

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