People of the City was one of the first novels published in the very successful African Writers Series (AWS) by Heinemann Educational Books. Revised from its original 1954 appearance for the AWS edition in 1963, the novel has in its second form been taught widely in Africa and in Commonwealth literature courses elsewhere. Yet it has by now been superseded by more sophisticated and up-to-date accounts of urban life after independence.
The book seems, especially as it begins, to work more as a collection of short stories than as a cohesive novel. In fact, many of the chapters were originally written as short stories and broadcast by Radio Nigeria. This may explain why certain events and characters are restricted to certain chapters, with poor patchwork transitions inadequately connecting them. It may also explain the dependence on melodrama as well as why the characterization itself lacks systematic development and depth.
Yet the style of the novel also presents an easy target for criticism, being full of cliches, stilted conversation, and logical blunders. For example, in the opening pages the setting is identified as “the famous West African city (which shall be nameless),” only to be identified as Lagos a few pages later. Cliche responses by Sango in particular seem cinematically derived, and the Hollywood dialogue at times looks so remarkably out of place that Ekwensi’s style has been described by one critic (D. Passmore) as camp. By the time he produced People of the City, Ekwensi had practiced his craft in half a dozen published works of slowly increasing merit. Nevertheless, this novel is written without the polish and with little of the experimentation with form to suit the African subject matter that readers have since come to expect from African literature.
Clearly, this novel is not important for its style; rather, its significance lies in Ekwensi being the first African writer to investigate closely, in the form of the novel, the reality of big-city life in Nigeria and to question the direction his society seemed to be taking.