22 Oct 2014

9jEducation Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.


Nnedi Okorafor has been on my read list for a long time. I first encountered her books when a friend excitedly recommended her afro-fantasy novel Akata Witch, a novel set in an alternate Nigeria with a female Nigerian albino protagonist, Sunny who wove spells with a wand and collected magical money called ‘Chitum’ and a masquerade villain called Ekwensu. It was a very entertaining read and though the ending was disheartening, a common thread with Nnedi’s books, I rated the book very highly overall. It took common fantasy tropes and gave them new life, and had a young female protagonist who passed the *Bechdel Test. But this is not a review about Akata Witch so let’s get to the meat of the day.

If you don’t know Nnedi Okorafor, you should. Nnedi is a prolific writer, actually the most prolific of new generation writers, she has written nine books so far with three coming out this year alone (Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola, Kabu-Kabu and Lagoon). She is Nigeria’s foremost export in the genre of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction and she has won a truckload of awards for her work. Presently living and working in the US as a professor of Creative Writing, she juggles teaching and writing and is an all-around great person.

So far in 2014 Nnedi released two books, Kabu-Kabu, a collection of short stories most set in Nigeria to critical acclaim and Lagoon. I was able to get my hands on Lagoon pretty quickly because there had been a lot of praise from advanced critics. Finally with my book in hand, I settled down to read.


Lagoon is set in Lagos (as hoped and suggested by the title) and starts with three characters, Adaora the marine biologist, Agu the Nigerian soldier and Anthony the Ghanaian Hip life musician whose lives intersect during a chance meeting at the Lagos Bar-beach. They are practically thrust together when a sonic boom causes a tidal wave to swamp the shore and wash all three of them into the Atlantic Ocean. The tidal wave is unnatural, caused by an alien ship crashing into the Ocean. The three characters wash out on the shore the next morning, irreversibly changed. They remember seeing wondrous things in the water, being able to breathe underneath it. The aliens have chosen them and have return them back to land with cargo; an alien envoy who Adaora names Ayodele.

Ayodele seeks to meet with the Nigerian president and convince him the Aliens come in peace. The creatures of the Atlantic have called out to them, the oil spills in the water is causing them to mutate and killing them, Ayodele and her people bring new, green technology that will eradicate the need for oil. The rest of the book revolves around getting Ayodele to the president, and how the chaos that is Lagos and its inhabitants makes that practically impossible.

This is what I loved about Lagoon.
           THE FORMAT OF THE BOOK: Nnedi’s previous book had in my opinion one major flaw. Nnedi herself is quite opinionated, sometimes to the point of being preachy, and that usually flowed into her characterizations. Towards the end of the book Zahrah the Wind Seeker, the titular character Zahrah becomes little more than a mouthpiece for Nnedi’s feminist views, which in itself is not bad, but in the context of the book becomes annoying. Lagoon is written in a multiple POV (point of view) format, with the narrative switching between characters in each chapter. This constant switching from male to female character, gay and straight never lets Nnedi settle into one character long enough to fall to her usual tropes. It gave the book the urgency it needed to keep me flipping pages all the way through to the end (I finished Lagoon in thirteen hours, a feat for me nowadays).
           URBAN NIGERIA: Most of Nnedi’s books thus far have either been set in alternate magical lands (Zahrah the Windseeker, Who Fears Death) or a magical sub-community hidden in plain sight in the real world (Akata Witch). Lagoon was set in Urban Nigeria, and she does a brilliant job of capturing the chaos and beauty and immediacy that is Lagos. She didn’t water down her pidgin for American speakers, or beautify the landscape. It was a Lagos I easily recognised and it was refreshing to see someone dare to do that.
          SCI-FI: Thus far everyone had assumed Nnedi was fantasy only, but with Lagoon she widened our perceptions of how fantasy and Sci-fi intersect and did it expertly, though the aliens were anthropomorphic, it still made for great reading.

This is what I didn’t like about Lagoon.

 The ending was a let-down. I was particularly hoping this book would finally break the bad ending jinx for Nnedi but nope, this one continues the tradition. It was particularly disheartening because Lagoon introduced a shape-shifting alien race, and then introduced powerful traditional spirits. There have never been a better setup for epic battles. Yet nothing literally happens. One of the alien/spirit match ups ends with the alien taking the spirit into a computer and then coming out having ‘talked out’ their differences (retches). The ending of the book was open ended so hopefully there will be a sequel, with Nnedi you never know.
          TROPES: There were a number of caricatures that you’d expect straight out Nollywood. Corrupt pastors, overzealous Nigerian mothers, rebellious sons, suspicious husbands. I don’t have any problems with these kinds of characters; they exist in overwhelming numbers in Nigeria but I hated how two dimensional they were, like they only existed to make Adaora, Agu and Anthony look better. If you’re going to narrate from a character’s point of view, I’d at least hope they’d be made three dimensional.
      Finally, the fantasy part of the novel was basically pish-posh. It’s excusable in a strictly fantasy novel to explain away magical abilities as ‘just because’ but when you mix genres, the laws of both come into play. In a sci-fi/fantasy novel even the fantasy has to have some proper explanations. Otherwise it falls flat. A lot of the magic in this book fell flat.

Over all, I loved Lagoon. It’s a brilliant book that I want to see made into a movie. Especially because it was written in response to the South African Film, District 9 which painted Nigerians terribly. Time to get our story out there.

If you come across Lagoon, do get it, it’s worth your two thousand naira.

*: The Bechdel’s test is a test given to film and literature to determine if it has realistic female characters. If a book or film has two or more main characters between whom interaction happens over the course of fifteen minutes that doesn’t revolve around/is influenced by/ about men then the book/film passes the test. 

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