Gavin Chait’s debut novel takes place in the fairly distant future in the remote West African village of Ewuru. Its inhabitants consider themselves fortunate: they spend their days growing tea or engaging in other agricultural and technological pursuits. And they are sufficiently well advanced to number among their possessions “a river turbine, a range of fabricators, digesters and a sphere” – a sphere being a form of computer that functions as a kind of oracle. Yet their apparent good fortune and comfort is shadowed by signs of violence, by images of unrest from alien lands.
The lands are both literal and figurative. Figurative, in that the villagers are collectively haunted by memories of a terrible flood that swept through their community 20 years ago. Literal, in that Ewuru is regularly visited by refugees – “All look haunted and starved” – making desperate voyages from the water wars of northern Nigeria, and by reports and images of the armed struggles that are taking place in the surrounding country.
Not far from the opening of Lament for the Fallen, these signs of danger are intensified and added to when the villagers receive a further discomfiting visitation when a strange object falls from the sky and crashes into the forest that lies outside Ewuru.
It soon becomes apparent that the machine, covered in tiles that “look like blocs of smoke” and “slightly taller then the height of a man”, hails from another planet. It carries an encaged and broken man.
This “sky person”, as he is known to begin with, is an alarming and peculiar being: comatose yet able to speak, three times the weight of a normal human and covered in skin that “gleams like matte metal: a titanium sheen that feels cool and unyielding”.
It soon transpires that Samara, as the alien figure is named, has fallen to Earth in an effort to escape the menace of an orbiting prison known as Tartarus.
The ensuing narrative focuses on Samara’s attempt, with the help of the villagers, to heal the wounds he has suffered on his journey, escape the evil prison that circles above him, and find his way back to his home and the woman he loves.
As he does so, he awakens the attention of a savage warlord who rules the region and who comes to threaten the well-being of the villagers – of whom the most prominent figure is their leader, Joshua Ossai – who are attempting to assist Samara in his quest.
The resulting novel is a perplexing affair that somehow manages to be both enervating and enjoyable. Chait has a gift for inventiveness and strong narrative talent – qualities that lend the book considerable magnetic and propulsive force. It is difficult to put down and, on occasion, good fun.
It is also almost comically bad, most notably in terms of its prose. Chait makes his villagers speak in mannered proverbs that are presumably supposed to capture a sense of “authentic” tribal wisdom. For example: “My ways are not to carry burdens from one place only to deposit them in another. There is much suffering, but there is hope also.”
And he has an anti-talent for the clichéd, the inert, the inelegant: “cleaned it up a treat”; “brings up the rear”; “caked in mud”; “not overly large”; “her heart still pounding”; “his heart is not in it”; “survey their surroundings; “deep in conversation”.
Writing like this drains Lament for the Fallen of energy and makes what might have been a lively and enlivening novel feel exhausting and lacklustre. But it is to Chait's credit as a storyteller that if you start this book you will nevertheless, for all of its shortcomings, still somehow want to keep reading.
Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.