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Cover of Nnedi Okorafor's book Lagoon showing a green illustrated sea scene with squid, sharks and a person at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by a spotlight


Today Jodie is joined by Meghan, from Medieval Bookworm, for a co-review of Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon. Did this novel of aliens, squids and a magic closely tied to Lagos' oceans sink or swim with the ladies?


Meghan: One of the things that struck me right away when I started reading was the perspective. I can’t really think of other novels that start with a creature experiencing what might happen when aliens arrive, rather than what a human might be thinking, although it’s a good tactic. It reminded me more of a film than a book, actually. It also sets the lagoon - and hence Lagos - up as one of the main characters before the narration has even started rotating between the rest of them. Did you get hooked right away or did it take you a while to get into?

Jodie: I was hooked in quickly by the section about the swordfish. Focusing on the swordfish's perspective allowed the novel to make its opening, including the first encounter with the aliens, even more mysterious and challenging for the reader to decipher. The swordfish doesn't always use the words humans would to describe its world, so the reader has to work out what the 'snake' is and what is drawing all the fish towards one spot. By obscuring information in this way the book engages the reader and force them to puzzle out exactly what's going on. At least that's how it worked for me!

I want to pick up on what you say about the lagoon and Lagos being characters. People often say that fictional cities feel like characters, but with the emergence of the 'new weird' SFF has begun to take that idea more literally by personifying cities or having them come alive. One of my favourite parts of the novel was the way the bone collector road became a sentient entity. It emphasised that the Lagos-Benin Expressway is, as one character says, 'a shit road' and underlined how dangerous that road is. I'm assuming that's the novel making political comment about the state of Lagos' real main roads. I thought it was an interesting way to express the importance of place and location in fiction while also creating some exciting SFF episodes.

I don't know much about Lagos, but by the end of the book I felt like I had been given a vivid picture of this fictional version of Lagos. Did you come away with a strong impression of this novel's setting? What did you think were the most interesting details Okorafar put into her world?

Meghan: Yes, I completely agree about the swordfish. It was interesting and different and it made me really curious about what was actually happening, enough to encourage me to read further and get much more into the book.

And I loved the bit about the road too! That was a highlight, really memorable.

I did feel I had a strong impression of the novel’s setting. I thought Okorafor did an excellent job of balancing the sci-fi elements with the reality of life in Lagos. I am also not at all familiar with the city, but I felt like I was immersed in it, especially when the book took a step back and started showing events from the point of view of others. It’s not just the three “main” characters but the supplemental characters who add flavor to the story, characters like Philo and Fisayo. We see a whole linked cross-section of the society, not just one particular level of it. I suppose any city is like this with its upper and lower classes, but this felt like a peek into Lagos’s culture alongside all of the various more exciting alien takeovers.

One of the other bits that struck me was how differently all of the various part of society reacted to the aliens. Philo’s boyfriend tries to kidnap her, the pastor tries to convert her, and others are tempted to kill her or try and save her. The book is trying to tackle a whole swathe of humanity.

I did feel that this was in some places one of the areas in which it fell short, though - in trying to take on so much, I didn’t think that the three main characters were as fleshed out as they could have been. Agu and Adaora felt more real to me than Anthony ever did, but as someone who manufactures a persona for an audience, maybe that was the point. How did you feel about them?

Jodie: Well, my big button-hitter is character depth or a kind of precise character detailing, so I was a little disappointed that Lagoon didn't go beyond the surface with some of the characters. I agree that Anthony is very minimally sketched, and I don't think the book is making a point about him being a public figure. At least, I can't see any markers which suggest this point to me.

Like you say, Lagoon tries to present a wide cast of characters in order to reflect different attitudes. It aims to include a wide cross section of Lagos' society in order to show how much variety the city holds. I think Okorafor built Lagoon around a structural style designed to give the reader a wide picture of her vision of Lagos, and to project a certain pace onto the text. And that structural design and pacing decision does limit the space she gives to the development and depiction of some characters. It just doesn't allow enough space and time for the book to dwell on the detailing of their lives.

Still, one of the things I enjoyed most about Lagoon was its structure and its pace. I think one of the book's strengths is creating clarity in the heart of chaos. Lagoon is built out of short chapters and constantly changing perspectives, which create a fast paced reading experience. The magical chaos and the sudden action of the plot combines with this structure to give the novel an almost frenetic feel. Yet I never felt like I'd been pushed on too fast by the novel; I was never confused by all the different characters and events it was throwing at me. Chopping back and forth between characters, situations, perspectives and even styles is not something many writers could carry off without losing the reader but Lagoon had my attention from beginning to end. And I always felt I had a solid idea of what was going on in this novel.

Meghan: Yes, I completely agree with you about that. A lot of books throw you into the deep end and you have to fight to figure out what’s going or get lost. While Lagoon does this almost literally to its characters, as a reader it’s not confusing and Okorafor has tight control over her story.

One of the details that has also struck me since I’ve finished reading the book was actually the use of regional dialect. Maybe I’m just not a reader who exposes herself enough to books that have the possibility for this (and probably that means I should) but I felt like it played a part in reminding me that this was a part of the world unfamiliar but familiar to me. Even though the characters weren’t all well fleshed out, like I said before, they are still tangibly people with real problems that I could meet on the street. Having that regional dialect written phonetically, having characters sound the way they sound in Lagos, is a reminder that even if we talk or look different, we are still actually people. I like books that remind me of that. We - as a society - are too good at turning other people into villains.

I know it’s now been a while since we finished this - what has stuck with you the most over the last couple of months about the book?

Jodie: I think Okorafor quickly creates vivid, memorable scenes in her shorter chapters. Some of the parts of the book that have stuck with me are minimally connected to the main plot. The scene in the internet cafe, the animal narratives, the section about the president of Nigeria, the section about The Bone Collector, and the Black Nexus' LGBTQ parade are all elements I remember well.

And, weirdly for me, the cover art plays a big part in my memory of the book. Whenever I think about Lagoon, Okorafor's Lagos is bathed in the green colour of Joey Hifi's cover illustration. I felt like it captured the idea of a modern city overtaken by a futuristic alien-inhabited sea really well.

Meghan: Oddly I remember strikingly different elements of the book. I think, despite me saying that the characters aren’t fleshed out very well, I remember Adaora and her scenes in the most depth. Her disillusionment about her marriage and the way that Father Oke manipulated her husband. And the noise Ayodele made when she changed. Little pieces of the story.

I do agree on the cover, though. It’s so striking and it fits. I hope it encourages people to pick the book up!

Jodie: Me too. I think Lagoon is a great book to start with it anyone is thinking about reading Okorafor's work.

Supplemental Material

Jodie reviews Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death
Ana reviews Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death

Date: 2015-07-14 08:59 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Trans symbol with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Thank you for this review! I was pretty twitchy about the ways this book handled sex work & the trans* characters (I am trans, I'm not a sex worker) but I also felt like she was trying? But I've loved everything else she's ever written and I did still enjoy this book, so. :-) Like I say: thank you!

Date: 2015-07-15 11:10 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I think when you compare it with the awful of something like the treatment of the trans character in Bird, Boy, Snow (a book which came out not long after Lagoon) it looks like trying but I think there were def some bumps in that storyline & in other areas. I felt like she wanted to expand the diversity of her story & reach out to include people from a wide variety of Nigerian communities but ended up wandering into narrative defaults further down the line (especially when you look at a lot of the characters who ended up dead).

I'm looking forward to reading more by her - I hear Akata Witch is great :)

Date: 2015-07-15 11:46 am (UTC)
kaberett: Trans symbol with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Oh Akata Witch is fab - #2 is due out sometime this year and I am super looking forward to it. But unfortunately when it comes to trans characters being written about right now my benchmark is "if you're not doing as well as white ?cis dude Max Gladstone I'm going to be faintly disappointed in you" (because he actually handled it so well I ended up crying on the veg I was chopping for dinner -- after I'd reread because it didn't make sense with the ugh-you-screwed-up-reading but I couldn't quite believe he'd got it right on first reading).

Zahrah, the Windseeker is also absolutely fab (and incorporates a bunch of material from the sme universe etc as show up in her short story collection; still haven't decided which way round I think it's best to read them).

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