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Going AWOL in Africa’s Largest City

WELCOME TO LAGOS
By Chibundu Onuzo
293 pp. Catapult. $26.

Certain cities — New York, London, Paris, Berlin — are commonly associated with the drama of self-exploration. Their stories, at the center of countless novels, plays and films, are familiar, their terrain well-worn. In comparison, postcolonial cities feel fresh, the landscape of their literary and artistic production ripe with potential. And with that their narratives continue to change, not just in how they are told but in who does the telling and to whom.

“Welcome to Lagos,” the American debut of Chibundu Onuzo, a Nigerian writer whose previous novel, “The Spider King’s Daughter,” won Britain’s Betty Trask Award, offers an earnest — though at times frustratingly frenetic — portrait of Nigeria’s sprawling metropolis. The book opens in the Niger Delta, with an army officer, Chike Ameobi, and his friend Pvt. Yemi Oke, who are tired of killing civilians in the name of an obscure national mission. Chike is a serious man with “a rigid morality underlying his mildness”; despite his self-proclaimed agnosticism, he finds solace in the Bible. Yemi, on the other hand, remains a mystery for much of the novel and his quiet demeanor is often mistaken for stupidity.

During yet another violent raid on a village, the two men abandon their posts and head for Lagos. On the way, they encounter Fineboy, a clever young man obsessed with honing his radio voice; a recently orphaned young woman named Isoken; and Oma, who is running from her abusive husband and oppressive life. The five form a kind of family, each hoping to fashion a different, if not altogether new, life.

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Lagos comes most alive early in the novel, when survival is the group’s only concern. Their walks through the streets, attempts to find jobs and search for makeshift lodging give Onuzo an opportunity to provide colorful commentary on the city. The crew’s first home, under a bridge, offers a view of hawkers who “sauntered by, holding their wares to passing traffic while traders sat beside fresh fruit and vegetables, waiting for customers to beckon,” and “thin, agile conductors” who hang from moving minibuses, “calling for passengers.” A near accident with a motorcycle snaps Chike out of a daydream and reminds him that “Lagos would kill you if you wasted time on yesterday.” Nostalgia is a luxury he can’t afford.

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