419 by Will Ferguson (Viking), 298 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Do you chuckle at those email messages from Nigeria about all the dough you can make if you transfer just the smallest sum? You won't be laughing after you read 419.
Nigerian Criminal Code article 419 gives its name to the email scams that can devastate naive folks who fall for them. Take copy editor Laura's father, a hoax victim who commits suicide in Will Ferguson's thriller when a Nigerian operator drains his bank account.
Ferguson shifts the scene back and forth from Laura's hometown (probably Calgary) to Nigeria, where teenaged Nnamdi has left his home village to work for foreign oil interests. The narrative then shifts to Amina, pregnant and starving, who's walking through villages pillaged by oil companies, trying to survive.
Forget Ferguson's breezy travel writing or his humour collection, Canadian Pie. Here, the emphasis is on the effects Shell, BP, et al., have had on the landscape, where oil has slimed once healthy rivers, and on the psyches of Africans forced to comply with their modern conquerors. Vivid descriptions of impoverished people living in shacks beside obscenely wealthy communities make this a valuable contribution to the world-wide debate on inequality.
So committed is the author to this part of his literary mission that he lets his Africa narrative unfold in ways that sometimes disrupt the thriller action - a minor weakness.
Eventually, all the characters converge, but not as you'd expect, making this a powerful read. Whether he likes it or not (he's on record about his irritation at the idea that 419 is a "departure"), Ferguson's a heavyweight now. Good thing.
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