Hardcover, 293 pagesPublished May 1st 2018 by Catapult (first published January 7th 2017)When army officer Chike Ameobi is ordered to kill innocent civilians, he knows it is time to desert his post. As he travels towards Lagos, and into the heart of a political scandal involving Nigeria’s education minister, he becomes the leader of a new platoon, a band of runaways who share his desire for a different kind of life.
Full of humor and heart, Welcome to Lagos is a high-spirited novel about aspirations and escape, innocence and corruption. It offers a provocative portrait of contemporary Nigeria that marks the arrival in the United States of an extraordinary young writer.
Prayer was all the recommendation he heard for Nigeria these days. For every crisis, eyes were shut, knees engaged, heads pointed to Mecca and backs turned to the matter at hand.
Chibundu Onuzo’s sophomore novel, Welcome to Lagos, is a novel deeply embedded in the heart and soul of Lagos, Nigeria. The prose drips with the Lagosian culture and the atmosphere around the characters within these pages is busy with a sense of urgency and the fervency of life that is often overlooked in comforts of first-world life. Skillfully weaving multiple storylines together, Lagos laces together a tale where the powerful meet the poor head on, where Robin Hood-like morals still exist and where the cultures of London and Lagos blend and clash as colorfully as the gorgeous cover art that wraps this. I opened these pages not knowing what to expect as someone unfamiliar with the culture but, as I’d hoped, this novel took me by the hand and showed me the way, navigating me through the gates of wealth and under the bridges of poverty with both grace and heart.
Welcome to Lagos features a cast of unlikely companions who are bound together by circumstance but wield their circumstances into the bonds of a true family. When Chike and Yemi desert the Nigerian army—a capital offense—they know that they must escape down roads less traveled until they can get as far away from the Niger Delta as possible. Along the way, they meet Fineboy, a mischievous youngster with a carefully crafted American accent who dreams of becoming a radio presenter and whose scrappy street smarts they come to depend on; Isoken, a beautiful adolescent separated from her family in the fighting who’s still traumatized and guarded from an attempted rape she suspects Fineboy of being a part of; and Oma who is fleeing from the damaging fists of her abusive husband who knows the next time he hits her could kill her. This unlikely band of characters just trying to survive finds themselves brushing up against the law in more ways than one and changing the course of history when an unlikely intruder to their home comes a-knocking.
This novel is so full of the soul and ethos of Nigeria. The dialogue drips with authenticity right down to the colorful pidgin dialogue that Onuzo skillfully weaves in, authentically portraying a culture while navigating readers who are unfamiliar with such dialogue. There are several references and language switches you may not immediately grasp unless you intimately understand this world yourself, but that makes it all the more realistic and immersive in setting. The best literature isn’t watered down for the masses. Sometimes, we have to go it.
Short chapters made for a quick and jaunty pace. There’s very little, if any, fat to be trimmed on this story—just enough to create a trim and attractive figure, not bloated with unnecessary prose that should have been shaved away instead of sitting like a pot belly at the center of the narrative. Welcome to Lagos links the narratives of each character together, even introducing new characters with their own POV chapters late in the novel. It creates the effect of effortlessly swinging from vine to vine, each one a new chapter with voices that overlap then recede into the distance, reappear then recede again as another voice takes over. There’s something in this novel for everyone, whether you are familiar with the culture or not. This is a novel that addresses real issues head on while avoiding soapboxing and proselytizing. Rape, domestic abuse, war, corruption, poverty, class relations, family, and duty all play major parts in this narrative production in a way that is as poetic as it is gritty.
“Say it out loud so it doesn’t have power over you again. My husband used to beat me. I only married him because I was afraid of being a spinster for the rest of my life. Say it.”
“I was attacked by some men. They tried to rape me. I can’t forget. I’ve tried everything but I can’t forget. Semen everywhere. On my face. On my stomach. In my ears. I can still feel it.”
The sense of place and scenery here is alive. You can feel the dust in the air and the boli on your tongue. Welcome to Lagosoffers up beautiful prose and thoughtful innuendos while never shying away from real matters, hard glimpses in the mirror for both the characters and their country.
“In your country, the descendants of the biggest thieves, are they not the ones making the decisions? Your House of Lords. Who made them so? Was it not by oppressing the poor, by swallowing all the land? Today, we are calling them ‘my Lord,’ calling them ‘Honorable.’ Your banks built on the slave trade, Lloyds, have they returned any compensation?”
The characters here are vivid with voices that raise loudly above the noise of the city, their storylines woven together with care and utter believability. Many of the chapters are marked with newspaper excerpts, both tying together the storylines and highlighting the state of Nigeria, functioning as a back drop for the novel’s unfolding. That was a clever choice. It allowed Onuzo to fill in the circumstances of Lagos, the state of the country and its people, without having to pound it home ad nauseum in the narrative, allowing room for social commentary at its finest—biting and poetic. And for that Welcome to Lagos earned 4 stars and a high recommendation from me that you add it to your shelves! ****
**Thank you so much to the publicity department at Catapult/Counterpoint Press for reaching out to me and sending me copies of this lovely book!**
P.S. If you’ve never been to a Chibundu Onuzo signing, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you go to one. She’s hilarious and engaging, down to earth and extremely, extremely intelligent and thoughtful when she speaks. Check out my interview with her on my Instagram, and it will soon be added to my blog as well!
Chibundu Onuzo was born in Nigeria in 1991 in Lagos and is the youngest of four children. She is a History graduate from King’s College London and is currently an MSc student in Public Policy at the University College of London.