The air is thick with portent in Nigerian writer Helon Habila’s stirring first novel, Waiting for an Angel. But how could it not be? In this tale set in Lagos during General Sani Abacha’s military rule in the mid ’90s, there’s an edginess to every action, every hesitant step into streets patrolled by army jeeps and the menacing black Peugots of secret police. As one character succinctly puts it, “In this country the very air we breathe is politics.” In fact, the air is so charged with danger and foreboding—not to mention smoke and fumes—you can almost choke on it.
Waiting for an Angel, winner of the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing, opens in the stultifying prison cell where Lomba, a journalist with the independent magazine The Dial, suffers for his unintended role in a street demonstration. (Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died, provides him with solace and inspiration.) In successive chapters told from different perspectives, we revisit the events of a few years earlier that led to the protests and Lomba’s imprisonment. We follow Lomba through his short-lived university career—the campus is shut down after student unrest—and his even more ill-fated love affair with Alice, who cynically marries her soldier sugar daddy.
Habila dramatically relates the novel’s events through the voices of Lomba, Alice, and Lomba’s undaunted editor at The Dial, closing in on the demonstration gone awry at the heart of the story. Habila has included, as well, real events that give the book a gripping immediacy: General Abacha’s coup blares from a barroom television set; dissident writer Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution sends chills through the book’s characters, as does Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti’s death from AIDS. Increasingly, the novel takes on an urgent, pulsating momentum—not unlike a Fela song itself—propelled headlong toward a violent explosion.
And explode it does, especially in the slums of Poverty Street, “one of the many decrepit, disease-ridden quarters that dotted the city of Lagos like ringworm on a beggar’s body.” Poverty Street is where the characters find their intersection, and the novel its anticipated climax. Here Habila captures most poignantly the fear and frenzy of that time, as Lagos burned and the country went up in smoke. Like an angel, Habila has breathed new life into his world.