“Trouble doesn’t sleep in Lagos”: A review of Leye Adenle’s “When Trouble Sleeps” – Jasper Ugbaa

Welcome to Leye Adenle’s Lagos where, a few pages into the plot, the prologue in fact, a private jet, with the owner on board, crashes into a house. Simultaneously, a man is about to be lynched by touts and our Amaka, conscientious daughter of an ambassador, is caught in the crosshairs of both events.

You recognize this Lagos, yes?

It is not yanga that wakes sleeping trouble in this delicious thriller, but vendetta or vengeance from the previous Amaka thriller ‘Easy Motion Tourist’. Following on the events of the previous novel, Chief Olabisi Ojo wakes up in a presidential suite with head splitting pain an exorbitant bill and no memory of what transpired the previous night. His driver informs him he has actually been in the suite for two days. Still trying to figure out the mess, he arrives home to find some detailed activities had already reached his wife, photographs. She is livid and tells him she has already handed the matter to her father, a dreaded political force regarded as the godfather of godfathers. It is Ojo’s meeting with ‘Baba’ that sets off the novel’s plot.

Adenle is not interested in the familiar tropes of artists who portray Lagos: there is no romanticizing poverty, no subplot weighing heavily on the perpetual calamity of traffic. A few similarities to the traditional thriller genre are like the time span (a third of the novel occurs in 24hours) and the short, snappy chapters exist, however, defying the shortcomings of most crime fiction published all over the world, the writer spends time with each character, showing us who they really are in relation to their habitat. There are moments when Leye achieves sheer imagery, like Amaka sitting alone in her Bogobiri room, looking at an Ndidi Emefiele painting of a solitary woman sitting in a room, a frame within a frame. Then the Lagosians come alive, the everyday people, not their poverty but their humanity jostling against each other on the page.

The book is about the society’s relationship with women’s bodies and power. As Otunba, one of the major power players tells his protégé,

“There is no spirit like money. There is enough here to buy private jets, entire estates in Osbourne and still have enough change for hundreds of Mercedes cars. And if you stand in front of those things and look at them, you will feel nothing. But when you see money like this, if your heart is not strong enough, you can run mad. That is because of the spirit that lives inside money. Money is power yet it is just paper.” Page 94

As in the real life Lagos, different layers of existence parody each other.

“Blood stained men with machetes surrounded Amaka and led her through the market. They marched past suits and wedding gowns.” Page 96

There is a touching scene where women gather round the main character against hordes of touts who want to burn her alive, for trying to save another young woman. There are so many tricks the writer performs with the reader’s attention, being as fickle as his female lead, placing her in insurmountable danger just before whisking her away in moves we should have seen if we could see the writer’s hand. The result is a novel that reads like a tight action/thriller script for most parts.

Leye shows his skill as a weaver of tales, the many subplots never confuse or contradict themselves for the most part; they come to a head stoking true suspense halfway through the book. When it comes to critiquing the Nigerian political ecosystem it comes too close to satire. Leye uses these subplots to show us how we are often culpable in the bitter realities we face as a country, and uses his character Amaka, to show us that there could be another way. She is driven as far as we can tell (no other motive is revealed) by her passion to free young women and girls from the sex trafficking cult run in ‘The Harem’, a hidden mansion in the outskirts of Lagos from where the blindfolded girls are driven to meet men of power.

It may be thriller, something often characterized as European but like Oyinkan Braitwaite’s Booker longlisted ‘My Sister the Serial Killer’, it is truly homegrown with our Nigerian intelligence and sensibility.

The challenge with the novel is that the chapters keep running on so much so that the suspense gets tiring at some point. The book begins to feel like good sex, but a prolonged one, with a lover who simply does not know when to stop. The fact that his plot is multilayered does not help either, the reader comes so close to losing track of the storylines. There is the urge to skip some pages, even though after careful scrutiny, to get back to the main plot of the book and see what happens to Amaka. Then we don’t really meet Amaka, even smaller characters like Naomi get motives and development but Amaka, even though fearless, sometimes to the point of being stupid, is nothing more than a thread running through the book, holding the subplots together. There is her love interest based in London and her influential parents who never make a cameo but that’s it. The writer spends so much time on what she does and not who she is. Is this a flaw or a trick of genre? Maybe we will find out once and for all in the sequel.

Other characters are full though, even though for a flash. In Malik, Leye paints a fully formed and formidable villain who is sufficiently as dangerous as he is handsome, with more than enough motivation to hunt Amaka. Leye entertains us for the first half of the book, but it is when Malik identifies Amaka as his true mark that the novel gets truly riveting, if not terrifying. Amaka is not a naïve do-good damsel-in-distress; in fact every character is a street-smart player who will use every loyalty, whether of the corrupt government or the everyday people to better their chances in the game of reaching the last page. And it is a bloody task because Leye does not spare the characters we like; no stone is left unturned in the plot.

“When Trouble Sleeps” is a sharp and witty sequel to “Easy Motion Tourist” and joins books like Oyinkan’s My Sister the Serial Killer to challenge our neat categories of genre fiction. His richly imagined characters and every-day-ness of his book begs the question, at what point does crime fiction become literary?

He has mentioned on a panel that he certainly wasn’t thinking of categorization when he was writing and claimed he was fine with the crime fiction tag. The book does not neatly sit in the realms of fiction either, in terms of being unreal, it is in the reader’s consciousness as a reality, what with his skillful depiction of Lagos with its streets and markets and hotels.

Goalposts, aspirations and loyalties shift in tandem with the crazy turns of the plot and Lagos is revealed for what it truly is, not just a place where trouble sleeps, but a game of survival, a game of life.

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