Lagoon: I loved it as soon as I saw the swordfish

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I thought I was going to love Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon (2014) when I read the first chapter, from the point of view of a swordfish. She is not just any swordfish; she is an eco-warrior. Through her eyes, we see the arrival of extra-terrestrials into the lagoon of Lagos, the Nigerian capital. And from that point on I was never disappointed.

Lagoon does not spend too much time with the swordfish, although we do see her again a few times. The main characters are three people who end up at the Bar Beach shortly after the beings from another place have landed, and these three become the spokes-humans for the visitors. They are Adaora, a marine biologist, mother of two and wife to a troubled husband; Agu, a soldier who has recently been in trouble with his command; and Anthony Dey Craze, a successful rapper from Ghana who is playing a series of concerts in Nigeria. A rogue wave pulls all three of them into the water and introduces them to one of the visitors, who comes with them to Adaora’s house. Adaora calls her Ayodele.

Okorafor’s book follows the reactions of various people in Lagos as word gets out about the visitors. Ayodele’s people relate to energy differently than we do, and one of the most obvious ways is the ease with which they can shape-shift. The story expands beyond the reaction of the initial three humans, who were guided to that beach for a reason, to other people in the city; people who fear the visitors; those who see the visitors as a source of money or power; and those who believe they are a sign of the end of days. Father Oke, for instance, the so-called Christian leader who has drawn Adaora’s husband into his sect, sees the visitors as a way to raise the profile of his “witch-slapping” congregation, to pander to his own ego and the accumulation of wealth. A group of students plans to kidnap Ayodele and ransom her or sell her. Throughout the story, Okorafor shows us various parts of the vibrant, dynamic Nigerian capital, as the trio of humans try to reach the Nigerian president to introduce him to Ayodele.

Lagoon mixes science fiction with magic, grimness with humor, and sometimes all of the above with a quality of dark fantasy that borders on horror. The Bone Collector, a stretch of road so badly maintained that it literally collects traffic deaths, comes to life as a road monster, planning to feast on the panicked people trying to leave the city. One funny moment occurs when Ayodele, appalled by the behavior of humans when they break into Adaora’s house, changes into a monkey and refuses to communicate with them, glaring at them from her monkey form. (Adaora’s daughter persuades her to change her mind.) Some characters grow more open-minded, like Adaora’s husband Chris, who can no longer ignore what he is seeing. Others cling to fear and violence. In the midst of a citywide reaction as more visitors come ashore, a young man reveals a secret about himself to his closest friends, only to have them reject him. Another young woman finds that her beliefs do not save her.

I recently commented in a review of another book that while the story told us there were crowds of rioters, there was never any sense or sound of a riot. Here, through the storytelling choices she makes, Okorafor provides a sense of crowds, of anger, amazement, panic and opportunism that touches all the senses. Tiny details, like casual descriptions of clothing or food at a cart or in a store, bring Lagos to life in Lagoon. While the story of Ayodele and her first contact are the primary focus, through the characters of the city reacting we see social issues of the day; traditional belief systems diminished or degraded by colonialism; and prejudice and bigotry, especially leveled at the LGBT community.

Speaking of making it real, Okorafor introduces a couple of characters who speak pidgin English, and they speak it throughout the book. It’s a testament to her writing ability that the reader’s comprehension is almost seamless. I do have to say “almost;” of course there is an adjustment, but because of the way she weaves the language in, it’s an easy one. In her afterword, Okorafor suggests that people approach the pidgin with “a relaxed ear” and remember that there is English in it. Readers might assume that if it is somewhat easy to read and comprehend, it might be easy to write for a foreign audience. I think this tempts readers to overlook how artfully Okorafor leads us into the language. It took a lot of hard work and concentration to make the pidgin English sections look easy and natural. If you are fearful that you somehow won’t be able to understand it, there is a glossary at the back — but you will be able to understand it because you are in the hands of a talented and hard-working writer.

Lagoon was a fun read with lots of thoughtful points made along the way. The mission of the visitors is different from what we usually find in first contact stories, and I liked the broad canvas the story employs. I love the magic. I thought in one or two places, things were a bit easy for our three humans, but the revelation of why the three of them particularly were chosen made up for any easy steps they might have had. The story contains a post-chapter behind the glossary and the acknowledgments, so keep turning those pages.

Lagoon — (2014) Publisher: Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria’s legendary mega-city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before. But when something like a meteorite plunges into the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world…and themselves. ‘There was no time to flee. No time to turn. No time to shriek. And there was no pain. It was like being thrown into the stars.’

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. Lagoon might be one of those books that I just end up buying instead of waiting for my library to stock it.

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