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Hilary White

The basic story concerns Chike, a young lieutenant in the Nigerian army, based in the Delta region, who is ordered to kill civilians. He abandons his military career and goes on the run, heading for Lagos in the hope of finding anonymity and safety in the city. En route, he “acquires” a group of men and women, displaced by various circumstances, with nowhere else to go. In the city, they find a hidden basement flat, squatting together and trying to rebuild their lives. The flat co-incidentally turns out to belong to the Education Minister Chief Sandayo, who has scandalously “disappeared” with millions of dollars of government money – part of an international aid package. The local then the international media get involved. The rest is detail. And in that are the gems of the story.

It is a very simple story line; not even really a story but rather a string of happenstance, which might require some to set aside their scepticism about co-incidences. Real life does carry on. But the journey to Lagos, and the attempts to build new lives, allows Onuzo to explore the realities of Nigerian life. The rich and the sometimes very poor and the links and obligations between the two. Rural and urban life. Relationships between males and females, older and younger, in an increasingly “Westernised” world and culture. The integration, or not, of the various tribes and indeed the movement of th ...

The basic story concerns Chike, a young lieutenant in the Nigerian army, based in the Delta region, who is ordered to kill civilians. He abandons his military career and goes on the run, heading for Lagos in the hope of finding anonymity and safety in the city. En route, he “acquires” a group of men and women, displaced by various circumstances, with nowhere else to go. In the city, they find a hidden basement flat, squatting together and trying to rebuild their lives. The flat co-incidentally turns out to belong to the Education Minister Chief Sandayo, who has scandalously “disappeared” with millions of dollars of government money – part of an international aid package. The local then the international media get involved. The rest is detail. And in that are the gems of the story.

It is a very simple story line; not even really a story but rather a string of happenstance, which might require some to set aside their scepticism about co-incidences. Real life does carry on. But the journey to Lagos, and the attempts to build new lives, allows Onuzo to explore the realities of Nigerian life. The rich and the sometimes very poor and the links and obligations between the two. Rural and urban life. Relationships between males and females, older and younger, in an increasingly “Westernised” world and culture. The integration, or not, of the various tribes and indeed the movement of the rich (and their assets) out of Nigeria into other countries. This is a very busy novel.

So why would one want to read it? Well, the depth of detail regarding life in Nigeria is always interesting – melding themes about that country that you might have been aware of into a seamless whole. But this is fiction, so we have to come back to the people, all represent a theme, or an issue and there is no room to develop any of them fully, although the overall approach is sympathetic. Of course, the struggle to cope in a harsh environment when old links break down is a universal one with more than Nigerian implications. Seeing a diverse group of individuals trying to live together with little time to build loyalties and trust, but needing the group to survive is also memorable. Ultimately, this is a novel about choices – large and small – and then living with the results day after day.

I enjoyed this novel, but felt it lacked a little something that would have made it exceptional. I am not quite sure what, perhaps the lack of more fully developed characters with the resultant emotional distance. But I am sure it would appeal to most book groups as there is plenty to mull over and discuss.

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