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Monday, January 23, 2017

Review of 419 by Will Ferguson

3.5 Stars 
This novel won the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, but I never read the book until now because it’s on my book club’s reading list.  I’m not totally convinced that it’s worthy of the award.

After her father dies in a suspicious car crash, Laura Curtis learns that he fell victim to a Nigerian email scam which has left his widow virtually destitute.  This plot in Canada is eventually connected to three characters in Nigeria.  Winston is an email scammer who has little future in his home country.  Amina is a young pregnant woman fleeing tribal connections in the north and looking for a new life in the south.  Nnamdi is a young man who becomes a player in the black market after his home region, the Niger Delta, is devastated by irresponsible oil drilling. 

The novel examines the theme of exploitation – how the hunted become the hunter become the hunted in a seemingly endless cycle.  Laura’s brother, feeling his family to be victims of scammers, becomes a scambaiter.  Laura sets out to get restitution and revenge but ends up a victim too.  Some of the 419 internet scammers see their activities as payback for the raping of Nigeria by white men, revenge for the scourges of colonialism.  Winston, as one of the scammers, is a hunter but he becomes the prey of a criminal mastermind.  Nnamdi is a victim of the oil companies and their irresponsible drilling and so he becomes a predator, using skills taught him by the companies and becoming involved in a scheme to sell stolen oil to the government: “illegal fuel to a legal depot” (229). But then he becomes a pawn in someone else’s criminal activities. 

One can even go back in history to see exploitation and its consequences.  As Nnamdi admits, his people, the Ijaw, kidnapped people for slavers, and tribal animosities remain:  “’We Ijaw captured and sold a lot of Igboos over the years.  They are still mad at us about that’” (262).  Nnamdi believes  “the Ijaw had never been subjugated, never been enslaved.  They had been the hunters, not the prey.”   But this is not really true.  Now the Niger Delta, the homeland of the Ijaw, is exploited by foreign oil companies; the entire ecosystem of the delta has been devastated and their livelihoods destroyed.  Many Ijaw see the oil-revenue sharing formula with the Nigerian Federal government as unfair so there have been several high-profile clashes with federal authorities, including kidnappings like the one described (266-267).  It becomes difficult to determine who is the exploiter and who is exploited. 

I had some difficulty with characterization.  Perhaps I’m naïve but I found Henry Curtis’ gullibility unconvincing.  He was an educated man and would surely have heard about internet scams via the media.  No year is indicated in the correspondence with Henry, but the police already know exactly how the scams work so they are obviously not new crimes.  Laura is a mild-mannered copyeditor who transforms into a fearless scambuster who manages to outwit some of the bad guys?  But then after her experiences, she shows surprising naivety.  Amina remains flat because little of her background is given.  We never learn why she is so determined to escape from northern Nigeria though we might speculate that her pregnancy has something to do with it.  Nnamdi is well developed, but he seems to transform into a mechanical wizard very quickly.  His devotion to Amina is not explained to my satisfaction; he meets her and immediately takes her under his care? 

Ferguson’s experience as a travel writer and humourist are obvious in this book.  His descriptions of Nigeria (language, food, customs, ethnic divisions, politics) make the country come alive.  His descriptions of Calgary seem bland by comparison.  There is not much humour, but for the visit with Winston’s parents.  (And their blindness to Winston’s activities mirrors the Curtis family’s blindness to Henry’s.)

This is what I would consider a solid book.  Its weaknesses in characterization, however, are not what I expect in a Giller Prize winner.  Perhaps the other contenders were not strong either.