by Nnedi Okorafor
I really wish I could say that I loved this book.
It started out so well. A mysterious sonic boom in Lagos, Nigeria? A rushing wave that swallows three strangers brought together by fear? An alien presence that has arrived upon the shore? I was hooked from the first page.
But all too soon, my enthusiasm had disintegrated.
I can't decide if the core of my issues with the book was the plot or the characters. Okorafor set up a diverse cast. I particularly appreciated the subplot involving Black Nexus, a LGBTIA group. However, all too many of the characters fell back on tired tropes, such as the evil, scheming, prideful, wife-beating Christian minister who serves as one of the major antagonists. The main characters, in particular, felt like little more than ciphers who served to push the plot along. Adaora, Anthony, and Agu felt particularly wooden to me, a set of ill-defined catalysts rather than full-blown characters. Okorafor tended to spell out their reactions and actions first, then explain their reasoning with a bit of backhistory that wasn't provided until after the reaction, increasing my sense of disconnect from the characters. It was fortunate that their emotions were spelled with an "X loves Y" level of directness, because I honestly wouldn't have predicted their emotions or reactions from any intrinsic understanding of the characters themselves. I am hard pressed to think of a romance that involved less chemistry between the characters, either in friendship or love.
I think that the core problem is that there are so many ideas in this book, so many different paths for the plot to take, that none of them are given full justice. Social justice is a theme throughout the book, yet the plot threads supporting it quickly divert into another story before petering out altogether. Domestic abuse also makes an appearance, yet I found the resolution not only disatisfying but thoroughly distasteful. I found some of the events in the book really creepy, yet no one actually in the story simply accepted the offered explanation--if any-- and moved forward without question or analysis. With an impending alien invasion, I'd expect an interesting exploration of morality and imperialism, particularly given some of the aliens' actions that I found to be disconcerting and morally questionable. With characters given supernatural powers, I'd expect some sort of backstory that explains how the supernatural can touch reality. With sentient roads eating cars and figures from Nigerian myth, folktale, and religion stepping into the scene, I'd expect a deeper grounding and backstory of the mythopoetic, and the ways in which it interacts with the aliens. Unfortunately, these types of events simply happen in the book, stripped of explanation and exploration of consequences and causes. The overarching theme of the book is change, yet the causes and ramifications of change are barely explored.
In the end, I think the moment that really stuck in my mind was a scene where a bunch of African-American college students discuss events in Nigeria, trying to determine if they're real or not. They conclude:
"You think it's some Orwellian shit? [...] Look at the 'stars' of the show. They black. Even the heroes are black. You think they gon' spend they money to put somethin' together that looks this real and actually allow black folks to star in it? Real Africans? And then set it in Africa?" He guffawed with glee and shook his head. "Naw, man, not gonna happen. This shit real. That's the more likely scenario."
Lagoon is a promising story with a lot of interesting and powerful ideas. I just wish that Okarafor had limited her scope to a few of them and given them the time and attention they deserve.