The Breathtaking Teleportation Of Femi Kayode’s “Lightseekers.” – Solomon Elusoji

What is the purpose of fiction? Is it to remember? To elicit empathy? Or to pass the time?

Depending on who you ask, the answers will vary. For me, fiction helps me understand other people, situate myself in circumstances I’ll probably never find myself in and travel to places, known and unknown, that my meagre journalist pay can never take me to. This transfiguration, call it tele-transportation, is what Femi Kayode achieves brilliantly well in his debut novel, Lightseekers.

The book revolves around the fragility of the human will in the face of fake news; how information can be twisted to feed pre-existing biases and set the world on fire. And it is loosely based on the story of the Aluu Four, the students of the University of Port Harcourt who encountered death in the hands of a vicious mob in 2012.

Such a dark subject but Kayode’s version is light, even playful as it cuts through the bulky tragedy. This warmth comes largely from the protagonist, an American returnee and investigative psychologist, Philip Taiwo. After three young students are brutally murdered in the fictional town of Okriki, he is tasked with figuring out why.

Taiwo’s Americanness, marital worries and academic curiosities are set against the ordered chaos that is Nigerian society and a villain straight out of a Stephen King playbook. And the journey to solving the mystery, from when Taiwo leaves Lagos to Port Harcourt, is a rollercoaster.

On arrival, Taiwo’s vision of Port Harcourt is visceral, a contemplative city divided by the profits of crude oil and marred by the violence of injustice. There isn’t much beauty. And the longer he stays, especially in Okriki, a community close to the State University, the more he is convinced that there is something fundamentally wrong about how the society functions. There is an “immediate violent reaction to almost everything,” he says at a point. And it is this violence that propels the plot and carries it to a point of exhaustion, not completion.

The novel’s pace is frenetic, in the usual fashion of the thriller genre, but there is some consideration, with brief lectures – delivered by characters, of course – on cultism in Nigeria, the horrors of the Nigerian civil war, the politics of crude, mental health and the nuance of sexual harassment in Nigerian universities. The range is staggering.

Kayode’s triumph with Lightseekers is his deft re-enactment of a point in Nigerian society, a nadir that represents all that is wrong and awful. “Writing this novel was an exorcism of sorts,” he writes in the book’s acknowledgement section. But reading it refreshes the memory for those who have forgotten; and for those who do not know, it delivers a fine portrait of how societies disintegrate, gradually, and then all at once, like a big bang.

Lightseekers (Raven Books) will be released on 4 February, 2021  

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