Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria’s legendary mega-city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.
But when something like a meteorite plunges into the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they could never imagine. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.
Before I say anything about the actual story of Lagoon, I have a PSA for publishers: if you want me to check out your books give them a Joey Hi-Fi cover. I’ll never not look at a Joey Hi-Fi cover. His work is just amazing! </fangirlrant>
Of course, while the cover certainly drew me to the book, Nnedi Okorafor is an author I’ve long meant to read, as she’s one of the names that always pops up in discussions of writers of colour and especially those writing in English. When I discovered the synopsis for Lagoon I was immediately taken with the book because it sounded both fun and exciting. It was those things, but it was also a searing examination of humanity and the way we treat each other and the world around us.
Lagoon was a kaleidoscopic story. While the main narrative focuses on three protagonists – Adaora, Anthony and Agu – there are several secondary characters and even smaller bit parts that weave in and out of the story and connect to each other in unexpected, but remarkable ways. Where else would you encounter chapters from the points of view of a swordfish, a tarantula, and even a stretch of highway? I loved these unanticipated viewpoints, because they’re not meant as entertaining asides to the story, they are an integral part of it and Okorafor makes the most out of them. Her writing is wonderful, with a great use of dialogue and the different languages spoken in Lagos. She writes entire dialogues in Pidgin English, which I found fascinating, trying to figure out where the words came from, but then I’m an unapologetic language geek, so I would like that.
The three main characters, Adaora, Anthony, and Agu, who I took to calling the three A’s in my head, are three strangers brought together seemingly at random on the night the strange events related in Lagoon begin with the arrival of a loud sonic boom. Each of the three A’s is more than they seem at first blush. When we meet them they are already different from the norm, due to their situations in life, yet they turnout to be even more exceptional than we thought. We learn their histories during the course of the novel and they are really special. The one thing that bugged me about this is that we never learn why them and whence these powers come. I know that not everything can or has to be explained, but I would just have loved to understand more about it.
Of the three A’s Adaora was my favourite. She’s fearless and has such a sense of responsibility. At one point in the book she has to make the tough decision to send her children to safety and that scene just grabbed me by the throat because it was such a brave and heart-breaking choice to make. Her struggles with being a strong, liberated woman, married to a man who is ‘born again’ and would perhaps rather see his wife in a more submissive position were also interestingly handled. I like the fact that her husband Chris is juxtaposed with Agu. Agu is a soldier who was beat up for trying to prevent his squad mates from assaulting a woman and as such is quite opposite of Chris in his behaviour towards women and Adaora in particular. I loved Agu’s strong moral compass and his ability to stay true to it in the face of threats. Of the three, I connected to Anthony the least. His character intrigued me, but for me didn’t resonate as strongly as the other two.
There is a fourth A, but she is set somewhat apart from the first three. She is Ayodele, the woman who comes from the sea, but is not of this planet. Ayodele, a name given to her by Adaora, is the alien ambassador sent to negotiate with Nigeria’s president to facilitate her people’s move into Lagos. I loved Ayodele and her species. Okorafor created a kind of alien that is not just a human with a weird forehead or strange eyebrows, but a species that is intrinsically different from humanity and isn’t even equivalent to human biology. They also don’t come to conquer Earth, they seek to co-exist alongside humanity and to make our planet better. This creates a strange mix of creature that are terrifying in aspect, but whose intentions aren’t frightening at all. Yet while their intentions seem benevolent, their alien outlook on life and morality has them react in ways that would only serve to frighten people more. They are change incarnate and humans never deal well with change.
Okorafor doesn’t flinch away from the seedier side of life, showing the slums as well as the gated communities of Lagos. Her affection for the city leaps from the page and infuses the book. Despite this, there are also indictments for those elements that in the West are always closely linked when thinking of Nigeria: its systemic corruption and 419 internet scams, also known as Nigeria scams. The personification of this corruption is Father Oke, Chris’ priest who is more interested in his own material well-being than the spiritual well-being of his flock. His arc in the book was interesting and I liked how it ended. I also liked the scenes in the internet cafe with the 419 scammers, their utter contempt for their marks was so well-written. To be honest, I think most internet-savvy people would share their disdain; I know that on a certain level I do as well, because how naive do you have to be to fall for such a message? At the same time it illustrates how willing bad people are to take advantage of the kindness and naïveté of others and isn’t that exactly what Ayodele was meant to discover? To balance this, there is the wonderful speech given by the President, which voices his frustrations at not being able to effect change in the face of corruption.
With Lagoon Okorafor has written an interesting first-contact story with a very entertaining twist. The novel ends on a note of hope, a tenuous one, but tangible. The aliens have brought change, just by dint of their arrival, if nothing else, and life in Lagos or elsewhere on Earth will never be the same. I massively enjoyed Lagoon and I’ll certainly need to find more of Okorafor’s works in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.