Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

A gigantic fist-shaped wave rises out of the ocean and swallows them up, dragging them down to meet the aliens who’ve parked their ship in the depths, purifying the polluted waters and granting the local marine life’s every desire to be bigger, stronger, faster than they’ve been before. Swordfish grow golden and spiky, flying fish have razor-fins, cephalopods become huger and smarter.

And Anthony, Agu, and Adaora emerge shaken, changed, and accompanied by an alien ambassador in human form calling herself Ayodele as they try to make enough sense of what’s happened to tell the rest of Lagos and the world. From that moment on the narrative is dazzlingly refracted through the eyes of bishops, children, presidents, spiders, swordfish, and many, many more, as Lagos erupts in response to contact with aliens who call themselves change. [Via]

I do not regret reading this book, but I only recommend it for those wanting to find out more about Nigerian culture in a science fiction-y way or those who are looking for a book that is commentary on racist stereotypes in storytelling. BONUS FACT: I had never heard of Nollywood before this book, and I intend to see some Nollywood movies. They better be as good as Bollywood.

This is a book that, when reading it, you miss what the author was trying to do (because she did not do it well, in my opinion). It was only upon flipping back (to review my annotations) for this novel that I realized I finally understood a few things…

Take note of the stand-alone paragraph after the epigraphs–the “Welcome to Lagos, Nigeria.” Pay attention to who is talking here. Because I didn’t. The next page is a map, making it seem like everything before it was just front matter, not the actual story. But it was.

Once you can make it past the initial, annoying dream-like sequence of a sea creature turning into something…different, you’ll do fine. In fact, maybe read this goodreads jacket summary, because I wish I had before reading it. It clues you in the best out of all I’ve read.

Another thing you should be aware of: Don’t really get attached to the characters, because you never get to invest in them deeply enough anyways. Other reviews and summaries online make it seem like there are three main human characters–who do take up most of the novel–but so many unimportant side-characters (with names!) pop up only to disappear later, it becomes too jarring to invest more into the 3 MCs (Adaora, Anthony, and Agu). There’s even a narrative tense shift a few times between chapters. You’re never sure who to “embody” as the reader. Which is probably the point, because this book is for all the “people of Lagos,” but I just found it exhausting. Okorafor even has to sporadically remind us of characters she’s introduced, only to do away with them very quickly and finally; she puts a lot of expectation in the characters, only to not follow through.

One thing going for this novel is how smooth the pidgin English flows (even though I didn’t really try to understand any of it) and how well the author dumbs things down for American readers without making the reader feel stupid (Read: despite being so hard to read, it was actually PRETTY EASY to read!). BUT TAKE NOTE: There is a glossary in the back (before a post-chapter). The glossary is, essentially, a part of the book. I’ll get to why in a second, but I didn’t even KNOW it was there until after the fact.

Okorafor also attempts to be a voice for nature–for the animals she redesigns. The animals are given entire chapters sometimes, describing how they have changed since the aliens landed in the water. But the author’s attempt to give voice to Nigeria’s nature doesn’t really work in the story, because one of the aliens even helps harm (I assumed kill?) a few of the sea creatures her people “change” for the sake of humans instead of leveling with the fishes in the fish-language or whateverthehell else could have been done. I didn’t like that at all, and it added to overarching melodrama.

The aliens amplify not only living creatures but inorganic matter–a road comes to life at one point. But then things…Get. Weird. The books is almost over when gods start coming into the picture. I don’t know if that’s because the aliens are amplifying even the soul of Nigeria or if the aliens coming woke up what was already there. It’s never really explained. Or, I might have missed something. I don’t know. But it didn’t really work because the only thing suggesting that “gods would make an appearance” up until that point was perhaps this quote:

“The noise this time was so profound that many of the weaker multicellular organisms in parts of the ocean closest to the source were obliterated. This kind of noise would awaken gods, spirits, and ancestors.”

But you really only see gods awaken. And it’s not until about 100 pages later. The book is juuust vague enough in parts like that to really piss me off, instead of letting me be delighted in foreshadowing (i.e. there’s not enough foreshadowing). This leads me to what I thought of the writing style: The characters flip flop in their morals and are paper-thin–the character development is equal to them simply moving the story along. At one point there is insta love just so that Adaora’s husband can react to it and cause more drama. Instead of writing out explanations for things (that her readers have been waiting on all along), she cops-out by saying things like “it was all too huge to contemplate” (pp. 261, chapter 51) and so NO CONTEMPLATION AT ALL HAPPENS. I found it a tad lazy and disrespectful to the reader. This book is basically how I’d imagine a James Patterson novel to be written. Simple. Without flourish, but making enough promises to keep me reading.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT:

Then, half way through the book, suddenly the 3 MCs have super powers. WTF??? It wasn’t aliens that had “amplified” the humans, no. Their powers had been there all along:

“Outrage had prompted him to unbury his ability, and he found it even more potent than when he’d been a child.”

I seriously don’t get it. I’d call it all very “deus ex machina-y” if there also weren’t literal gods suddenly appearing toward the end. It was all very contrived and forced.

And thennnnn… The narrator “herself” gets a chapter and explains in a whisper-of-post-structuralism way that she is the cause of it all: the god of storytelling–the spider Udide Okwanka weaving everything together. This narrator later comes back in the end, saying that she “will leave [her] web” which cues the 1) Nigerian word glossary 2) an acknowledgment from the author and 3) the post-chapter.

I call the spider a “she” because I interpreted it as Okorafor stepping into the spotlight of her own play, giving context. Okorafor is the spider–and she goes on, in those acknowledgments, to explain that this novel started out as a justifiably angry reaction to the film District 9.

The post-chapter harkens back to her acknowledgment, with (yet again) new characters commenting on how what is happening will be interpreted by their American/white-washing culture. All very meta.

While this was the most brilliant part of the book, I can’t help but wonder if I’m reading too much into it–can’t help but feel let down at the fact “The Spider” could have woven herself in more elegantly. Otherwise, she seems more like fly in her own web, ruining the pattern.

This is a book that had a point–an “agenda,” if you will. And I don’t judge it for that. I judge it because it was so confused as to how to express it.

Still better than American Gods, though.

OTHER REVIEWS I AGREE WITH:

Such species-tinkering makes no sense from the benevolent-alien viewpoint. Star Trek may have been clunky SF but its non-interference Prime Directive absolutely works: planetary life systems have evolved to live in a precise balance and unless one is capable of understanding the entirety of a planetary balance, mucking about with planetary systems is a Bad Idea (i.e., human-caused species extinction, global climate change, etc.).

I also liked the inclusion of a cross-dressing character whose dilemma is straddling the two different worlds of his homophobic friends who don’t know that he likes to wear women’s clothing and his LGBT friends who are very flamboyant and who have a much more established feelings about their identities and activism. It was a shame, I thought, that this storyline seemed to amount to nothing and I felt it, too, could have been its own story with nothing to do with SFF at all.

Still, ultimately I felt that the shallow characterisation and uneven plot were what kept the book from really shining. There were so many things that left me wanting to know more – the spirit of the highway where so many people died, for example, and the viewpoints of the various animals – that kind of mythic level of storytelling was really interesting and I think the book could have done with more of that. Similarly, the whole idea that alien first contact is best done in a place like Lagos because it is big enough and well-connected enough to make a difference, but too chaotic to be under the control of a rigid government with lots of military, security, information control, etc – that was really great. Okorafor did a great job with developing a sense of place, too. I guess ultimately I just found it frustrating – as soon as something interesting happened, or I felt like I was getting to know one of the characters a little better, bam – switch to something else. Very fractured. Not my cup of tea.

 

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