Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor

lagoonWhen an alien spacecraft lands in the lagoon off Lagos, the world changes. As the panic-stricken city tears itself apart, three people are chosen to make first contact. They will have to confront their deepest secrets, if they – and the rest of Lagos – are to survive.

I joined Claire and Nikki of Bitches with Books for this month’s Bitches Book Club read.

I… really wanted to like this book. A lot. The basic premise – first contact in Lagos by aliens with transformative powers – is a corker, and we see the immediate impact of their influence from the unexpected and delightful perspective of the local sea life. It’s intriguing and threatening (turns out fish hate us. Who would’ve guessed?) – and it’s wide open for interesting developments: anything is possible.

Our principal characters are great at first glance. The humans: Adaora, the marine biologist whose marriage is foundering since her husband became born-again and decided she was a witch; Agu, badly beaten for trying to stop fellow soldiers committing rape; and Anthony, the rapper whose empathy seems at odds with his manic celebrity.

And alien ambassador Ayodele is fabulous. Alongside the Bone Collector (a sentient, man-eating strip of tarmac), she’s probably my favourite person in the book. She can change shape, read minds and dispense wisdom like a better-spoken Yoda. She’s confrontational but cool-headed, so when she flips out over how badly humanity reacts to her presence and turns herself into a small animal to sulk for a while, I didn’t really know what to make of it. That said, she’s towers over the second half of the novel – I loved her story arc, and the lengths to which she was willing to go to achieve her aims.

Unfortunately, my love affair stopped there. As with Binti, I struggled with the prose, finding it sparse rather than elegant, and painfully explicit in spelling out what people were thinking and doing. I wondered at one point whether it would work better read aloud (I think so, but that’s not how I read), or whether it would work better for a younger audience (possibly). Regardless, I found it awkward and it kept me at arm’s length.

Unlike Binti, the story is much less focused, and ended up feeling like an unholy mess. The POV bounced (briefly) to a number of other characters around the city. This served to introduce new perspectives and themes – first contact galvanises a local LGBT group to come out of the closet; some youths plot to kidnap Ayodele in search of a quick buck; a sex worker has a religious epiphany; and, and, and (and that’s part of the problem. So many threads).

While the subplots had merit (or could have done – I’ll come back to this), I seem to be ranting a lot recently about how much this sort of POV-swapping annoys me, and it’s no exception here. I love that the book presented a cross-section of different (and perhaps unexpected) characters, but I’d have preferred to see it through fewer eyes – not least because most characters ending up feeling like one-dimensional archetypes. It wasn’t sufficient for a character to be unpleasant – they’re over the top. No room for nuance here.

Too many of these subplots evaporated, despite the characters being tightly interconnected. For example: Agu is beaten for trying to prevent a rape; one of the would-be kidnappers heads off with a machete to do Agu harm after he’s (mistakenly) recognised as ‘one of the soldiers who raped his cousin’… after which the kidnapper is never seen again. It’s almost as though the story is overwhelmed by all the details it takes on; having thrown everything in the kitchen sink, the cutlery gets lost in the suds. While the ending theoretically wraps it all up (in a non-specific ‘it’s all fixed now’ kind of way), there’s no explicit closure for most of them. This might be more realistic, but it doesn’t help the narrative. Worse, the constant distractions make the pace of the main thread uneven.

On another front, an out-of-the-blue attack of insta-love buzzed another of my least favourite tropes. Whilst one of the characters involved did show some immediate horror and regret – what am I doing? – by the end of the novel, their relationship seems to be a given. I tried hard to swallow this as one more way that the aliens were changing everything and everyone they came in contact with, but… I really hate this trope. I don’t like making excuses for it.

Ayodele aside, I also didn’t love the climax – the arc around superpowers didn’t really add anything beyond a convenient ‘get us out of dodge’ card in the face of rampaging sea monsters; and the President has to be the least Presidential fictional President since Gaius Baltar. Only with fewer interesting character defects.

So in the end, the book gets a measly 2 stars from me. It was nearly a DNF – I soldiered through because the ideas were intriguing and there were moments of grace.

For those who choose to read it: there’s a Pidgin glossary at the end, which you may find useful. I didn’t find it until I’d finished the novel, which made certain chapters practically incomprehensible.