All of us have had a dream, a dream that seems to get closer to reality with every step taken. But then once in a while, it stalls, and we lose hope of achieving it; we settle for what we have at that moment…and then out of the blue, comes this golden opportunity- our hopes and dreams are rekindled, we let go of what we have and plunge into the unknown….only to realize we have fallen into a bottomless pit, that seems to push that cherished dream away the further we go….
That is what I thought as I was reading the book Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun. Released in February 2014 by Unnamed Press, it is the author’s debut novel. The plot spans through USA, Switzerland, Paris, Nigeria and South Africa. It is a tale of murder, crime, shattered dreams, betrayal. The story features three lead characters: Wale, a Nigerian lunar geologist, Thursday Malaysius, an abalone poacher, and Melissa, a girl from Zimbabwe with a skin condition that is as scary as it is fascinating.
Wale is a lead lunar geologist at the Johnstone Space Laboratory in Houston. Professionally, he is a success, he has steadily risen through the ranks but he is yet to achieve his dream- ….. “Wale had rocketed to the top of the academic world as a lunar geologist, only to slam into a glass ceiling while Americans soared through to upper level positions and he rotted away in a lab”. With no more promotions coming his way, he feels he might never achieve it…until Bello contacts him, and lures him with the Brain Gain Project. Bello is an interesting character, very good with words; “he had a way of buttering things…. In a battle of words, Bello would win every time…” Wale is taken up by this new idea; at least he would achieve his dream. “….he was going home. Wale would have his chance; finally to go up in space……this was a dream being realized.” All Bello needed form him was a sample from the lab to show his commitment to Brain Gain.
On the day he is to leave, not all goes according to plan, neither does he meet Bello; he ends up in South Africa; witnessing and discovering murders along the way. His family is torn apart, his son Dayo is his only comfort.
Thursday Malaysius works at Abalone Silver- an abalone factory. A job he loves, but which he loses due to loyalty to his friend, Leon. Leon has a big influence in Thursday’s life-he has defended him in fights, and he (Leon) offers him advice, in most cases the wrong advice. So when Thursday loses his job, Leon introduces him to abalone poaching. On the fateful night, however, Leon is arrested, Thursday survives because he was underwater, and Leon blames him. Thursday knows he has to bail him out if only to save his life. With mature abalone, he heads to Cape Town to meet Ip and get money for Leon’s bail. Ip is impressed with his abalone nurturing skills, and recruits him.
Melissa is a young woman with an unusual skin condition. No treatment seems to work for her. Her father, Tebogo is a revolutionary adores her. She’s the apple of his eyes. He is a powerful man, trustworthy and professional, and Bello comes to him for help concerning his revolutionary idea; Brain Gain. Although he is adamant, he agrees once Bello offers to get treatment for her daughter in Paris. It’s in Paris that she feels her father had been tricked. Her only hope of saving her father is the list of names of great scientists he sends her secretly. The first scientist she tries to contact is dead; the second one who agrees to help her is murdered on the night they meet. The assassin tells her the only one still alive is Wale and she hopes he’s the person who knows where his father is.
Years later, Melissa, now an internationally acclaimed model is still looking for Wale, the only person she believes knows where her father is. Wale, a bamboo furniture maker and a volunteer at the Royal Observatory is in a sorry state- he never met Bello and he lives in fear of Ibeji, a dangerous undercover antiterrorist unit. His son, Dayo is a grown up young man trying to land his first sale of the moonlight lamp, his own creation. The father-son relationship is hostile and it’s rather disappointing that the only information Dayo has about his mother are the lies Wale has told him in order to cover up what he did years back.
The events that follow are quiet unexpected- it turns out that Dayo’s lamp could be just Thursday needs for his illegal abalone farming; on the night that Melissa accidentally shoots Wale is the night that Dayo reveals his lamp to the Observatory community; and Melissa finally meets Bello again, he could be the link who leads her to her father and best of all the Nigerians have gone into space. Dayo knows that his father will get well soon to realize his cherished dream.
The book is a must read, the many twists and turns make it even more fascinating and reader is hooked from the beginning till the end. Many issues are covered in the story- unemployment hence resorting to illegal activities, dictatorial governments, corruption and poverty. The prose is simple and enjoyable. For a debut novel, it is fantastic and one can only look forward to his next book.
Deli Olukotun is the inaugural Ford Foundation Freedom to Write Fellow at the PEN American Center. He graduated from Stanford law School and received his MA in creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey and is a passionate soccer fan.