Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 306
Year: 2014 (10 April)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Lagoon by Nnedi OkoraforReview
Three people, who each find themselves for different reasons on Bar Beach, Lagos, are swept into the sea during the aftermath of an impact into the ocean, which is of such magnitude that its shock blast brings birds falling to the earth like stones. When Adoara (a marine biologist), Agu (a sodier) and Anthony (a famous rapper from Ghana) are washed back onto the beach, there is another figure with them – a nameless female that Adoara calls Ayodele, after a childhood friend. Ayodele is not human. She is an ambassador of her species, an alien that can shift shape, and whose mission is to negotiate with humans, warning them of what is to come. The three people accept the roles of intermediaries and they escort Ayodele into Lagos, a city that must deal with the revelation of first contact in all its many ways.

Lagoon is a beautifully told story, as much about Lagos as it is about Ayodele and her message for humanity. The narrative moves between people and places, even between animals and things. This is a world in which spirituality and life are interconnected, not always positively, as can be seen by Father Oke who uses his influence to collect money from his flock or by Chris, Adora’s husband, who calls his wife a ‘marine witch’. On the other side of this are the animals, some of whom are briefly given a voice here, who are self-aware and know that they will be reborn as other animals. The arrival of the aliens doesn’t just have an enormous impact on humans, it also transforms sea creatures, allowing them to develop as they wish in waters now cleansed of oil and other human contamination. Humans themselves are now no longer welcome in the sea. But there are big surprises in Lagoon other than the transformation of sea life – a notorious Nigerian road is revealed as alive and hungry. Absurd this might be but it is also terrifying.

It is refreshing to read a novel that treats first contact from such an unusual perspective, also setting it in a place less familiar to many readers, including this one. Lagos is depicted in all its vibrancy, colour and corruption. The story mixes with fable and legend, just as fantasy and science fiction mingle. Everyone wants the alien Ayodele for their own reasons and Ayodele is given plenty of opportunities to re-evaluate her opinion of her human hosts. Meanwhile, there is the mystery of the alien invasion itself. What does it mean?

There are sections of Lagoon that are immensely memorable and powerful, including segments in the first person towards the middle that recall where the speaker was when these events took place. I particularly loved the scenes in which animals revel in new found confidence and self-awareness, whether in the seas, the skies or creeping on the ground. The transience of their lives, the destruction caused by human beings, is evoked in such a rich and meaningful way. As a result, the novel’s message to care for the planet is all the more powerful.

As for the human characters, there are some intriguing stories here, some of which are just lightly touched upon while others are given more time. Adoara and her family are the most fully realised characters and as such I felt more connected with them than with the others. Agu and Anthony, as well as the President and his wives, are fascinating and I would have liked to have known more about them. Some dialogue is written in Nigerian and Pidgin English and, although there is a glossary at the back, this did interrupt the flow – a failing of this reader rather than of the book. These factors did lead to some detachment from the spirit and story of the novel.

There is both hope and dread in Lagoon, just as there is beauty and ugliness. Not all of my questions were answered but what I was given was a beautifully poetic novel that comes to life, especially during the second half, and tackles a favourite science fiction theme in an original and rather magical way.

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