When Segun Afolabi’s début collection of stories, A Life Elsewhere, was published to some acclaim last year, reviewers, including this one, used words such as ‘home’, ‘belonging’ and ‘exile’.
In his first novel, Goodbye Lucille, Afolabi has taken these concerns and spun them around a central character, once again adrift in an indifferent world. The book is set in Berlin, or rather West Berlin, as the timeframe is the early 1980s. Vincent, a Nigerian orphan, overweight and dissatisfied, is eking out a marginal existence as a freelance photographer and engaging in a semi-detached relationship with his girlfriend, Lucille, who lives in London. Vincent spends his days avoiding photo-shoot commissions and his nights in an alcoholic blur in the nightclubs of Berlin with his friends, a disparate group of slackers, exiles and misfits. His life is going nowhere slowly when a series of seemingly unrelated events shake him out of his torpor. The murder of a politician, a letter from home and random meeting with a girl in a bar combine to send Vincent’s life in an unforeseen and, at first at least, unwelcome direction.
For much of its length – mirroring its central character – this is a drifting, moody, introspective book. As it ambles along, the reader is gradually accustomed to the repetitive pattern of Vincent’s life and the growing imperative that something – anything – occurs to disturb his apathetic acceptance of an undervalued existence. Goodbye Lucille delivers on the promise of Afolabi’s début collection: it is an admirable first novel, tackling honestly and at length the knotty conundrums of identity and personal history that are the bedrock of his writing.Peter Whittaker