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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Nigerians in Space

Deji Bryce Olukotun

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To purchase Nigerians in Space

Title: Nigerians in Space
Author: Deji Bryce Olukotun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 291 pages
Availability: Nigerians in Space - US
Nigerians in Space - UK
Nigerians in Space - Canada
Nigerians in Space - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian (Nigeria) . 10/5/2015 Tade Ipadeola

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is a sense in which anyone literate in English will be able to understand Olukotunís book. But there is a reinforced reality in the book for Nigerians in diaspora who are literate in English and who are fortunate enough to read the book. There is another dimension altogether of the book for Nigerians living in the mother-country. (...) On another level of abstraction, Nigerians in Space is a perfect ontology of a national malady, which, the author convinces us, has implications way beyond national boundaries. (...) (T)ruly a touchstone for a different discourse about us, such as we are, stars without a constellation." - Tade Ipadeola, The Guardian (Nigeria)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nigerians in Space defies easy categorization; it can seem almost willfully presented so as to be hard to peg. A tantalizing title and an opening chapter that begins with a theft at NASA's Johnson Space Center would seem to promise a high-flying and jet-setting international thriller -- and Olukotun does deliver that, just not entirely in the obvious ways. So while even the title proves to be accurate and appropriate, it's not in the way one is initially led to believe. In not going down the immediate or obvious paths that would seem to lend themselves to the story -- yes, no Nigerians were launched into orbit for the making of this book -- Olukotun undermines lazy expectation. What he offers instead is a thriller of a different kind and order, still employing many of the traditional elements (including in the resolution, for those worried about where this might be going) but structuring it in a way that takes his characters (and readers) on a more complex journey.
       Nigerians in Space opens in 1993, in Houston. Walo Olufunmi is a lunar research scientist from Nigeria who has made his life with his wife and now young son in the United States. As his wife reminds him:

Abroad is our home. We weren't living abroad, Wale. We were living in America. We've been citizens for years. Dayo was born there ! There was never any work for you in Nigeria -- no job. You left because Nigeria has no meteorites. You followed your dream
       A new opportunity uproots Wale and his family: he was contacted by Nurudeen Bello, Special Adjunct to the Minister of the Environment, who has big, idealistic plans. The pitch he made to Wale was:
     "We need you," he began, "because it's time to end the brain drain and move to brain gain. It's time for a great mind of Nigeria to return home. You're the mind we need, Doctor.
       Bello's ambitions are grand, and he seems to have the ability to coördinate his complex 'Brain Gain' undertaking, which involves bringing many of the best and the brightest back to Nigeria -- but it's also veiled in a lot of secrecy, with cloak and dagger type arrangements. Part of this is also that he wants each person he recruits for the project to prove their commitment. As one of the other recruits later explains:
He wanted me to steal something from my lab. Something that would help Brain Gain and make sure there was no turning back. Collateral, if you will.
       Wale steals some moonrocks -- little more than splinters -- destroying any chance of returning to his NASA-lab life. Unfortunately, from the beginning everything seems to go wrong with Bello's escape plan for him and his family -- though Wale doesn't help himself by parking in, for example: "his boss' spot. A final thumb-on-the-nose" on his way out (ill-advised, as it turns out). Wale and his family manage their getaway, but not exactly as planned; they find relative safety (and some cash) abroad -- but they don't find Bello. And, very disturbingly, they do find Brain Gain being turned into a different kind of brain drain, as others involved in the project are getting killed left and right.
       Much of the novel alternates chapters between these events in 1993 and the present day -- but the present-day chapters are set in South Africa, and feature Thursday Malaysius, a young man under the wing of a small-time crook named Leon. Thursday's expertise is ... abalone, and he and Leon are involved in the illegal abalone trade. Leon gets nabbed by the police and Thursday wants to try to get him out, which brings him into the service of a more powerful local crime lord.
       A third storyline eventually also emerges, beginning also in 1993, with Bello recruiting a South African fixer living in Zimbabwe. The man's teenage daughter, Melissa, suffers from an unusual skin condition -- protecting herself by wearing a niqab, even though she is not Muslim --, and her father is convinced to join Brain Gain by Bello's promise of sending her to France and getting medical help for her there. This, too, does not work out quite as planned.
       It is Melissa who is determined to find out what happened to Brain Gain, leading her eventually to present-day South Africa, where Thursday is taking care of his abalone, and where Wale has also made his new home, the threads eventually all coming together. The ultimate answers, of course, can only be found in Nigeria; Olukotun's resolution reveals them but that is only one element to his conclusion, as he also allows for a more hopeful vision (albeit outside Nigeria).
       There are some very unusual, almost fantastical elements to Nigerians in Space -- and where you'd think it would be the moonrocks that are the most formidable of these, they're not (though Olukotun nicely uses those too, right down to the end); rather, it's the lowlier abalone. The loving treatment of abalone, disorienting at first, is surprisingly effective -- and even winds up playing a nice role in bringing everything together. Melissa's unusual medical condition is a more precarious success -- Olukotun makes a bit much of it (right down to that niqab) but he (just) gets away with it. The least convincing thing about the novel is the most traditional thriller-element Olukotun falls back on, an excess of close-range killing and shooting. And, with the bad guys largely unseen and unexplained until the bitter end, the thriller-aspect (and resolution) can feel a bit underdeveloped and explained, though the scene finishing that off is very satisfyingly done.
       Parts of the novel have a workshopped feel (over-polished, over-thought, more attention on the pieces than the larger whole), and the way in which Olukotun goes at his story from so many angles -- from abalone-raising to international modeling -- contributes to an occasionally too pieced-together feel, but this is a very strong debut, a novel that impresses both in the writing and in the unexpected paths it takes. It is also a fascinating novel about national ambitions (and realities), with Olukotun's portrayals of Nigeria and especially life in contemporary South Africa particularly good.
       Olukotun is confident enough not to condescend to or overexplain for (American, for example) readers, as remains far too common in 'African' fiction. Nigerians in Space is a very good African novel, in the sense that much of it is set in Africa and it presents local conditions and issues particularly well, but it is not (too overtly) self-consciously local fiction in the way almost all 'African' fiction marketed in the US/UK is. Cleverly piggy-backing on the international-thriller form, Olukotun has written a truly worldly novel (that is also considerably more than just a thriller -- indeed, is just incidentally one), international fiction in the best and broadest sense, and which remains far too rare (not just from Africa).

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 July 2015

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Nigerians in Space: Reviews: Deji Bryce Olukotun: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Deji Bryce Olukotun has degrees from Yale, the Universiy of Cape Town, and Stanford Law School. He lives in New York.

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© 2015 the complete review

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