Lagoon is an afrofuturist first-contact novel set in Lagos, Nigeria, and it’s as beautiful as it is messy.
Lagoon began as a response to the film District 9, in which Nigerians are heavily stereotyped. This novel, with its constant PoV switches, portrays a multifaceted, dynamic society without shying away from the negative aspects: Lagos is a multicultural city and the aliens chose it for its potential, but it’s also a place of corruption, bigotry, religious fundamentalism and scammers.
It is, more than anything, a place of change. The aliens chose three people – marine biologist Adaora, soldier Agu and Ghanaian rapper Anthony – to bring change to Lagos. Ayodele is the first alien they meet, and her arrival will send Lagos into chaos, and the city will be reborn. Lagoon‘s Lagos is a place where aliens walk side-by-side with humans with superpowers, figures from Igbo and Yoruba mythology, and ordinary people.
Nnedi Okorafor tried to represent as many aspects of Lagos’ people as she could. The result is a messy novel in which every character is a stereotype, and while the overall narrative stands out for its originality and message, the single parts do not.
First of all, some of the many (too many) characters we follow are a disabled* boy who exists only to get killed, a sex worker who dies, and a cross-dressing man who exists just to get outed and shot by homophobic people (I didn’t understand if he died, it was a confusing scene, but we never see him again…). It’s not even fridging, because it doesn’t advance the story at all – it was completely unnecessary.
Also, the constant PoV switching got tiring very quickly. Not only every chapter was in a different perspective, sometimes the PoV changed from one paragraph to the other. It was confusing to read. In a way, it made sense because it’s the story of a city, not of some of the people who live in it, but for me it didn’t work.
I read the Italian translated edition. It wasn’t one of the best translations I’ve ever read, but at least the fact that some characters were talking Nigerian pidgin wasn’t always lost (which is usually what happens, because it’s difficult to translate an idiom without losing that it is one).
The sci-fi and magical aspects of this story were my favorite parts, with creepy descriptions of marine horror (I love horror sea creatures), mythology references near to pop culture ones, and the future and the past mixing together.
It’s a book about the web of stories and the place Lagos has in it. The modern web – the internet – keeps the world together, and stories thrive in a society that has never been so connected.
Lagoon is a very fascinating, ambitious novel, but some parts of it were deeply flawed. It’s the kind of book in which the whole was more than the sum of its parts, because if I were to judge the scenes themselves and not the way in which they are connected, and their meaning in relation to the others, I would have given this a much lower rating – there were two, maybe three scenes in the whole book that I actually liked, but I ended up liking the book.
My rating: ★★★
* He is described as “mute and mentally handicapped”. “Mentally handicapped” is already – as far as I know – not the nicest way to say in English that the boy has some mental disability, and it was translated with the Italian word for “retarded”. Yay ableism?