The jacket copy promised to “be full of humor and heart” & I was told that if I like Adichie, I’ll like this one. It started out strong for me, and then I lost the thread somewhere.
1–I can see, beyond the Nigerian setting, why the connection to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work: Chibundu Onuzo’s novel proves smart, insightful, humorous and elegantly written; you are effortlessly drawn into the intrigue of characters and their contexts.
2–Don’t mistake “heart” for “heart-warming.”
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
Catapult, 2018. Hardcover Fiction, 304 pages.
When army officer Chike Ameobi is ordered to kill innocent civilians, he knows it is time to desert his post. As he travels toward Lagos with Yemi, his junior officer, and into the heart of a political scandal involving Nigeria’s education minister, Chike becomes the leader of a new platoon, a band of runaways who share his desire for a different kind of life. Among them is Fineboy, a fighter with a rebel group, desperate to pursue his dream of becoming a radio DJ; Isoken, a 16-year-old girl whose father is thought to have been killed by rebels; and the beautiful Oma, escaping a wealthy, abusive husband.—Jacket copy.
As Chike and Yemi head to Lagos to hide and find a new beginnings, they collect Fineboy, Isoken, and Oma along the way. It’s a series of misfortunes that bring them together and a series of hard decisions that bind them; their individual survival becomes a communal one.
Their lives will eventually intersect with Remi Sandayo who up until recently was the Honorable Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He’s fled Abuja to return briefly to Lagos with the $10 million (aka the Basic Education Fund) that he stole.
Hiding Sandayo and repurposing his money, the group will meet with one more significant character: Ahmed Bakare. Ahmed’s family lives in a wealthy enclave. He was educated and employed in London before moving back and into Lagos as founder and editor The Nigerian Journal.
Ahmed will eventually introduce us to an old University classmate of his who still lives in London: Farida.
The novel will shift its points of view and settings between these characters, plus two more via Farida. Some perspectives will appear more than others, and only where needed. Ten differing perspectives, experiences, contexts, Onuzo is demonstrating the multifaceted nature of the people, culture, and the city itself in Welcome to Lagos. Included, too, after the first section are epigraphs opening each chapter, excerpts from different sections of The Nigerian Journal.
Chike not only opens the novel, but we will spend the most time with him throughout. He is the leader of a group with an unknowable fate. That he relies on the others as much as they rely on him is of interest to the novel. I find, too, his reading of the Bible of very keen interest. Each recently untethered character grapples to find an anchoring object: for Isoken it’s her aspirations of an education; Fineboy wants to be on the radio; Chike, with no documentation of education, work history or letters of recommendation struggles to find a foothold, and so he looks for guidance in scriptures. All will find some solace and conflict in their relationships with one another.
He walked slowly to the others. Oma was still singing. he took her hand and she took Yemi’s and he took Isoken’s and she took Fineboy’s and Chike led them down an empty road lit by streetlamps, standing guard like tall metal sentries. the city was empty, an architect’s model of a place, the pavement stretching barren for miles. every once in a while a car would speed by, the driver’s eyes flicking anxiously to their group. only thieves gathered at this hour.
The novel is divided into three parts. The unusual family of five dominate the first, Sandayo enters more fully in the second, and Ahmed features more heavily in the third. Everyone becomes caught up in Sandayo’s life choices. It makes sense that it with the conclusion of his story that the novel should also conclude. And while Onuzo does write the ending using Chike’s perspective, I found myself disappointed. I realized that I wasn’t sure what the book was about to begin with. I mean, of course, the story needed an anchoring conflict. Which meant the story would shift away from the five in order to accommodate five more. Yemi practically disappears from the novel only to reappear for a short chapter that will make more sense in the epilogue. And that is where the five and Ahmed will find their conclusions and trajectories redefined—in the epilogue.
The Epilogue, where you will find my only serious complaint. That it ends with Ahmed and Farida; and that that was their final scene. Their relationship already felt like a device, and that ending felt tacked on, like a request for a romance that might be headed somewhere.
Welcome to Lagos reads like a conflict was written for the sake of providing a story for a group of fascinating characters to populate—they’d arrived in Lagos and are trying to survive/subsist, now what. But a fascinating conflict will require characters to be written and the scope to broaden. Fortunately, the novel is not about any one character or conflict, but the geo-socio-political context they’re written into. Unfortunately, if you wish you’d heard more from Isoken…
The syllabus had not demanded you know past phylum but she had crammed it all anyway. Isoken: the virgin geek, sat with her legs crossed because she wanted to marry a suit man, read her textbooks because she wanted to be a pharmacist, invent drugs, and name them after herself, Edwina, her Christian name.
She was still wearing the jeans that the villagers thought an abomination, that her mother said made her bum shoot out, that she wasn’t going to change because some dunces felt a woman shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. if ever men set upon you, you would want to be wearing the tightest trousers in your wardrobe, trousers that stuck to you and cut off your circulation, trousers that neither you nor a stranger could slide off without at struggle.
The novel’s movement from providing commentary about the five and their contexts move into more pointed incisions into the country’s government and Lagos—getting quite intimate and then telescoping outward to London and a more global stage, and back again.
Onuzo’s Lagos, both the domestic and political landscape, is colorful; both foreign and familiar. Onuzo provokes a lot of thought on a myriad of subjects. Her writing is engaging, compelling, seamless in her transitions. I’m glad to have read Welcome to Lagos, and I will be keeping an eye out for more of Onuzo’s work.
Recommended for those who enjoy Adichie, and novels set in Nigeria, or Africa, or just not here; those seeking something educational and entertaining in a read; a good book club choice.
Chibundu Onuzo was born in 1991 in Lagos, Nigeria. She studied history at King’s College London and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the same institution. Her short stories have been commissioned by BBC Radio, and she writes for The Guardian, with a special interest in Nigeria.