Review: Welcome to Lagos

TW: rape.

Welcome to Lagos, by Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo, is the story of five unlikely companions who, for one reason or another, all find themselves seeking out a new life in Lagos. So we have Chike, a military officer, and Yemi, his junior, both deserters from a campaign against civilians; Fineboy, a rebel who’s lost his revolutionary fervour and now wants to become a radio DJ; Isoken, a young woman rescued by Chike and Yemi from rape at the hands of a group of rebels, including Fineboy; and Oma, who’s fleeing her wealthy, abusive husband.

This little found family rocks up in Lagos, a city where there’s no work or housing. They sleep under a bridge for a while, before moving to squat in what seems like a miraculously abandoned apartment. Of course, because this is a story, the apartment isn’t abandoned at all, and one night a disgraced education minister turns up with a huge amount of stolen cash. What should the group do with the politician – turn him in and get the reward, or let him flee the country? And what should they do with the cash, which would set them all up for life if they so chose?

It’s very much a novel about doing, or trying to do, the right thing, in a world where “the right thing” is always compromised, contingent. For instance, when the group decide to donate the money to the schools it should have gone to in the first place, the headteachers of the schools are arrested on suspicion of helping embezzle the money in the first place. So: was that decision right or wrong? What about when Oma falls in love with a man who isn’t her husband? She never expects to see her husband again, and she’s never loved him, but, in her system of values, they’re still married. Can she, should she sleep with someone else?

And so on. Each of the characters has a moral centre, a system of values that gets tested in some way by the corruption rife in Nigerian politics, by the inherent unfairness of life in Lagos, and the economic exploitation of the West. There’s a strong religious thread running through the text: Chike reads the Bible every evening to the group, but its guidance, however inspiring, is of limited use in the real world.

In fact, maybe we can say that the novel’s looking at the inherent instability of all moral systems in the real world. Like all cities, Lagos is a place where a myriad such systems collide and clash and merge, as they do in microcosm in the found family at the novel’s heart. One of the novel’s sub-plots also concerns Ahmed Bakare, the editor of a small independent newspaper, the Nigerian Journal; he’s investigating corruption in the Nigerian government, potentially putting his life in danger as he does so. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from that (fictional) newspaper, snippets of opinion, news or propaganda that get borne out or belied by the chapter that follows: journalism is cast as itself a system of meaning, variously unreliable amid the vicissitudes of the world.

Well: what did I think of Welcome to Lagos?

It was fine. I didn’t hate it. It’s a strictly realist novel, tidy, sparse: I prefer my books baggier, messier, alive to the possibilities of ambiguity at a textual level, not just a thematic one. I wanted Lagos to leap off the page with all the chaotic energy of a young city, as it does in (for example) Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. It didn’t; Onuzo’s more interested in the emotional lives of her characters than in her setting.

Which is fine, of course, and saying “I wanted this book to be a different book” is not quite valid criticism. So, to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Welcome to Lagos. It’s just Not My Thing. Your mileage may vary.

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