In her second novel, “Welcome to Lagos,” young Nigerian writer Chibundu Onuzo returns to some of the themes that drove the twists and turns of her award-winning first novel, “The Spider King’s Daughter.” Lives as varied as they are storied find themselves together in Lagos, the overpopulated Nigerian city with “the aimless energy of a crowd, static electricity flowing nowhere, sparks rising from too many bodies jostling in too little space.”
But the novel begins elsewhere in the Niger Delta, an embattled oil-rich region where militants and the Nigerian army are caught up in lawless violence. After his army major orders gunfire on innocent villagers, Chike, one of at least five characters in the book, abandons his post as the leader of a platoon and hightails it toward Lagos with a subordinate.
Along the way, another more colorful platoon, also girded and guided by Chike, forms — the two soldiers are joined by Finebody, a militant with, oddly, an American accent; Isoken, a beautiful girl fleeing fighting in her mother’s village; and Oma, a married woman on the run from her abusive husband.
As the narrative advances toward Lagos in mostly short, well-paced and entertaining chapters, two more characters are added to the mix — Ahmed, founder and editor of the failing Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayo, Minister of Education, who tires of the gross rot in federal government and leaves Abuja with $10 million in his possession.
It is a true testament to Onuzo’s natural storytelling skills that she orchestrates, with humor, panache and multilingualism, the meeting of all these characters plus a foreign BBC correspondent at an underground hideout. There, in a gated Lagosian community, plans are afoot to undermine systemic corruption. But self-preservation in the face of brazen theft and unbridled greed becomes a mode of survival, and in this action-driven novel, flight is frequently the response.
When Ahmed’s offices are burned down because he publishes Chief Sandayo’s damning revelations (“Befriend the First Lady. Buy her purple things. Purple bags, purple Benzes, purple houses in France”), Ahmed flees Lagos for London. Escape is a clever (if not overused) narrative ploy by Onuzo — things never really stall or grow cold — but some of her best and funniest scenes remain in Lagos as the city steadily assumes the curious shape of a beguiling character.
To her credit, despite the multiplying points of view and the ever-ensuing drama, Onuzo never really cedes control of the plot even as it twists in unbelievable ways, and as it shifts from Lagos to London, a move that diffuses the not-so-novel focus of the book — rampant greed and corruption know no bounds in today’s Nigeria — but abides by the transnational currents in recent fiction from writers with Nigerian roots.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based book critic and award-winning fiction writer.
Welcome to Lagos
By: Chibundu Onuzo.
Publisher: Catapult, 293 pages, $26.
Event: In conversation with Lesley Nneka Arimah, 6 p.m. May 16, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.