A review of Nnedi Okorafor’s novel: “Lagoon”

“Horatio:  O day and night but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:  Then as a Stranger give it welcome.  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

These lines of Shakespeare’s from Act 1 scene 5 of ‘Hamlet,’ came to mind on finishing the extremely strange science fiction/fantasy novel that is ‘Lagoon.’

The story tells of an invasion of shape shifting aliens on Lagos, Nigeria, and of the change they bring.  Off the coast of Bar Beach an alien ship plunges into the sea, changing the sea life around it, making this life truly itself and more, awakening it to its full potentiality.  This involves some of it growing to monstrous proportions, so we get giant Swordfish and Squids. 3 disparate people are also drawn to the beach at the time of impact.  A soldier (Agu) who has rescued a woman from rape from colleagues, a woman,  a marine biologist, Adora, fleeing domestic violence, and a hugely successful rap artist, Anthony ‘Dey Craze.’  They are pulled into the sea by the alien life for a first contact experience that will change them forever.  Meanwhile an alien ambassador in the form of a tall Nigerian woman arises from the sea as an ambassador.  Taking the name Ayodele she comes in peace but inadvertently starts a riot, as tensions already evident reach boiling point.  Lagos descends into anarchy and more aliens arise from the sea.  Agu, Adora and Anthony were, it seems, chosen by the aliens because they all already have latent super powers like the ability to manipulate sound (Anthony), super strength (Agu) and teh ability to bind to use force fields (Adora).  And various creatures from Nigerian folklore become real and come to the surface, drawn it would seem by this accelerating change, including a huge story weaving spider.  Levels of meta meaning build a collide as we realise the spider is spinning the story we are reading.  The aliens want to live in some kind of symbiotic relationship.  But will humanity destroy them first?

I told you it was strange.  It also reminded me strongly of Shakespeare’s ‘the Tempest,’ that same mix of the sea, magic and strong human realities.  The language and writing is rich and sensuous, whether it is describing the verdant sea life, human violence or love, creatures from folklore or science fiction tropes such as shape shifting aliens.  On that note, another influence was possibly James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss,’ with it’s sub aquatic shape shifting alien invaders.  The writer also adds to her heady brew Nigerian colloquial language which gives the novel a really distinctive flavour.  The pacing is another strength, the novel is a real page turner, and the action barrels along as it communicates some pretty weighty themes.  Short chapters and events drawing to multiple crisis points help with this.  And that strangeness keeps thins unpredictable and suspenseful.

Problems for me included a caricature of Christianity that made me fear that the novel was going to go down a ‘science good, religion (specifically Christianity) baaaad’ road.  Some would welcome that, but to me its unhelpful and untrue.  However there are deepening ambiguities as the story goes on, which means things are not as simplistic as this.  The books strangeness was also to me a problem as well as a strength.  When characters from folklore start appearing and the lead characters reveal their super powers they have had since childhood, the story seemed to slip its moorings a bit.  In other words, it was in danger at times of making so little sense as to leave the reader estranged.  Nnedi Okorafor does manage to keep her riotous world bound by narrative integrity, but only just.

This is a novel about story telling as it is about all of the above, and I finished this feeling that I had been in thrall to a really good story that spoke truths about change and the human condition as much as it entertained.  I do recommend it.

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