Our connections to people have never been stranger. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the internet, people from all walks of life are increasingly isolated in person but willing to reveal more of themselves online. Nigerian author Eloghosa Osunde understands the tension of these tenuous connections, and in her first novel, Vagabonds!, she shows how each person’s life bears the effects of unstoppable forces. From the intimacy of sexuality to the vastness of cityscapes, Osunde gives the reader a clear picture of the messy collision courses that are our lives.
Vagabonds! begins with several dictionary definitions of its own title, prompting the reader to draw some preliminary conclusions about the story before they even read it. Then, over the course of the novel, Osunde allows the reader to become painfully intimate with economically, sexually and culturally marginalized life in Nigeria. She shows people at their best and at their worst, sometimes in conjunction, creating a universal sense of belonging that will resonate with many.
The defining characteristic of Vagabonds! is its large cast. There are tons of characters, but each manages to limn a certain aspect of Osunde’s world. Within this Lagos-set milieu, skeevy politicians and street hawkers selling pirated copies of “How to Get Away With Murder” exist alongside complicated people trying to find love and joy. Some chapters are written as letters, others as numbered or bulleted lists, experiments that call to mind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and lead to similarly reality-bending results. Characters appear and reappear, such as fashion designer Wura, who tells of her precocious daughter in one chapter, then later in the book turns up in letters from a lost lover. The dramatic effect of these touches is realized at the book’s end, in a time-stamped sequence of events.
Osunde’s devotion to exploring individual human lives is balanced by a notably divine focus in sections about Èkó, a mythical figure and synecdoche for the masses. Through Èkó, the reader is led to understand the relationship between the public and the godly: When people come together, even unconsciously, they create a divine power. In humanizing this power, Osunde shows how each of her characters is part of something much larger than themselves—which is, in both the biblical and laical senses, awesome.
There are several epigraphs at the novel’s opening, a preview of its ambition, but this line from Toni Morrison is the most salient: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Osunde reveals people loving and fighting in their bid to design the world together.