A ragtag group of refugees from war, corruption, and domestic violence attempts to resettle in Nigeria’s chaotic capital in Onuzo’s second novel (The Spider King’s Daughter, 2012).
When Chike decides to desert the Nigerian army, unable to abide its violence against innocent citizens, he plans to travel light. But Yemi, one of the privates under his command, wants out, too; together, they soon meet Fineboy, another deserter; then Isoken, a young woman who’ll be raped if left with her family; then Oma, who's escaping her abusive husband. Together they travel to Lagos, which is hard on newcomers with limited means: The only shelter they can afford is in a camp town under a bridge, and the quintet can only piece together side hustles. (Chike’s brief stint directing traffic is at once comic and scarifying.) Fineboy stumbles across what seems to be an abandoned furnished apartment, but they’re actually squatting in the home of Sandayo, a former education secretary who’s stolen funds in hopes the money will go directly to schools instead of being squandered by bureaucrats. Onuzo’s novel is at once a Robin Hood tale and a cross section of Nigerian society, and though she takes on a lot in terms of both themes and characters, she shepherds it along smoothly. She avoids grand defining statements about Lagos, smartly letting the predicaments of each character show how the city’s lawlessness runs parallel to its bustle. (“Lagos would kill you if you wasted time on yesterday,” she writes.) Simplified statements are for the smug BBC reporter parachuting in to cover Sandayo’s story. (“One giant trash can,” he thinks.) Not every character gets his or her due (a romantic subplot involving a muckraking journalist feels unfinished), but the novel is marked by lively storytelling throughout.
A well-turned tribute to the freedom and frustrations of a diverse city.