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SIn and around Lagos, the boisterous debut of Eloghosa Osunde is interspersed with glimpses of the city’s famous nightlife. At a party in the Old Ikoyi district, “[the] the apartment was out of his mind. The bodies inside were brimming with energy… They could turn the music down, but why? It was a good night to feel this alive. A good night to feel the beat in your thighs, in your belly, in your chest, beat in your veins. You can’t breathe, of course, but do you want to? That loud love, the searing desire, it all resurrects you after all, it’s what makes you want to love the world again.

Even as it faces darkness in its condemnation of Nigeria’s political and religious corruption and homophobic legislation, Osunde’s part-magical realist novel is imbued with this rich sense of the kinetic and the possible. As the titular exclamation point indicates, it is a loud work. He boldly challenges the pernicious sexual orthodoxies and hypocrisies of Nigerian life. It also happily resists conventional formal boundaries, both linguistic and generic. Written in “standard” and pidgin English, adopting prosaic and poetic modes, Vagabonds! is a kind of strange phantasmagoria. It consists of short, story-like snapshots about disenfranchised dreamers and otherworldly beings living in Lagos’ grip, all drawn with Osunde’s skill for prominent moments of connection. quiet in the middle of the metropolitan cacophony.

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A famous seamstress who must hide her relationship with another woman gives birth to a shamanic girl with supernatural wisdom. A gay driver becomes horribly aware of the danger he has to love. A group of abused wives create a safe space in which to share their trauma – and begin to fade away. Two sex workers find transcendent solace in their devotion to each other. A corrupt politician gets more than he bargained for – or perhaps his fair merits – in an encounter with an AI hire boy.

The fantastical tone of the writing serves to draw attention to the speciousness of altering whole sections of society. It also highlights the illusory nature of binary distinctions between “us” and “them”. More moving, it highlights how experiences of persecution can make one feel alienated from oneself. The thread that holds these surreal and hyper-realistic sketches together, not always effectively, is Tatafo’s character arc. Tatafo is a mercurial presence, one of the underlings of the mind president of Lagos, Èkó. Tatafo is sent to the city to spy on its inhabitants. Under the order of the unjust Èkó, Tatafo wreaks havoc, maintains inequalities and fuels the thirst for excess. But soon enough, Tatafo begins to question Èkó’s autocratic rule. He finds himself thrown out of Èkó’s inner circle, full of questions and determined to change.

While the mobility of the narrative form makes Vagabonds! an energizing read, there are times when episodic similarities in tone, texture and content undermine the reader’s immersion in this bustling world. Underdogs, in their various guises, are always worthy of empathy. The powerful are inevitably malevolent. Feelings are strongly felt. Especially early in the novel’s final act, as the stories become more compressed and fleeting, one might wonder about the purpose of the meandering structure of the narrative. The somewhat abrupt and unexpected conclusion – an imaginary settling of scores between the city’s elites and the armies of the dispossessed – offers answers, and also uplifting hope. But it’s a long and winding road to that climax.

Overwhelmingly, readers will be struck by the powerful sense of freshness, newness, and vitality here. Osunde gives readers a visionary version of what Lagos is and could be. Reverberating with musicality and crossed by an innovative figurative language, this patchwork and fabulist novel calls in a disorderly and mischievous way for a freer and more open Nigeria. In its experimental celebration of individuality, Vagabonds! is always defiantly and resolutely himself.

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