Welcome to Lagos - Chibundu Onuzo
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Release Date: January 2017
My Rating: 3 Stars
Deep in the Niger Delta, officer Chike Ameobi deserts the army and sets out on the road to Lagos. He is soon joined by a wayward private, a naive militant, a vulnerable young woman and a runaway middle-class wife. The shared goals of this unlikely group: freedom and new life. As they strive to find their places in the city, they become embroiled in a political scandal. Ahmed Bakare, editor of the failing Nigerian Journal, is determined to report the truth. Yet government minister Chief Sandayo will do anything to maintain his position. Trapped between the two, they are forced to make a life-changing decision.
Full of shimmering detail, Welcome to Lagos is a stunning portrayal of an extraordinary city, and of seven lives that intersect in a breathless story of courage and survival.
When I picked up this book I definitely thought and hoped it would make it to my best reads of 2018 but unfortunately it didn’t. I’ll concede that I probably shouldn’t have asked what people thought of it before I started because I got very varied and mixed responses and I have to admit It was a struggle trying to drown out the voices as I read. At some point I was all ‘so and so was so right! This doesn’t sound right.’ But once I pushed the voices back, I was able to enjoy and appreciate this book.
The story begins with Chike and Yemi deserting the army as their conscience weighs heavy on them, especially when they are ordered to kill women and children. They plan to move to Lagos and start a new life. On the way they come across Fineboy, one of the Niger Delta militia whose ambition is to become a big radio star; and Isoken, a young girl fleeing from the conflict in the Niger Delta. She escaped a near rape experience which she believes Fineboy was part of and may have lost her parents in the conflict. Together, the four unlikely companions set off for Lagos. On the bus, they meet Oma, a woman running away from her abusive marriage. When they arrive in Lagos, now 5, they decide to stick together and under the leadership of Chike, they have to rely on each other to survive. While in Lagos, they meet Chief Sandayo, the deposed Education minister on the run with 10M USD he stole from the ministry and Ahmed Bakare, the disillusioned founder of a Nigerian newspaper that is struggling to keep afloat. It’s an interesting mix of personalities and events.
Lagos is described as a vibrant city, bustling with people and activity. Everybody is on the move. There is life and poverty, lots of poverty, corruption, wealth, greed, violence, resilience and camaraderie as demonstrated by these 5 and later 7 misfits. It was so easy to imagine Nairobi being described in this book – those aspects of my city that I know exist but I am too ashamed to admit or talk about; and somehow want to be my little Nairobi secret hidden from the rest of the world. Because admitting it would be to acknowledge that I am privileged and at times very blind to what goes on around me and the struggles people grapple with every day. Onuzo does a great job in portraying Lagos as a complicated mix.
I however had a problem with the unrealistic characterisations and overall premise of this book. All the characters are painted as moralistic and optimistic individuals which did not feel real. Despite their dire circumstances, they are ALL for doing good for the society and none was tempted to take the money and run, this did not sound real to me. The premise of the book was also unrealistic – it felt almost too simplistic, this Robin Rood spin to the story felt like one, one would tell to a child when warning them about good v. evil in society.
This is a book that started really strong but became weak towards the middle and even weaker towards the end. That said however, Onuzo does have a way with storytelling that will keep you reading even when there are glaring weaknesses in the plot. It was an easy read that I was able to finish in a week.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts on it?