419: a book review

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From international bestselling writer Will Ferguson, author of Happiness™ and Spanish Fly, comes a novel both epic in its sweep and intimate in its portrayal of human endurance.

A car tumbles through darkness down a snowy ravine. A woman without a name walks out of a dust storm in sub-Saharan Africa. And in the seething heat of Lagos City, a criminal cartel scours the internet looking for victims. Lives intersect. Worlds collide. And it all begins with a single email: “Dear Sir, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help…” Will Ferguson takes readers deep into the labyrinth of lies that is “419”, the world’s most insidious internet scam.

When Laura Curtis, a lonely editor in a cold northern city, discovers that her father has died because of one such swindle, she sets out to track down – and corner – her father’s killer. It is a dangerous game she is playing, however, and the stakes are higher than she can ever imagine. Woven into Laura’s journey is a mysterious woman from the African Sahel with scars etched into her skin and a young man who finds himself caught up in a web of violence and deceit.

And running through it, a dying father’s final worlds: “You, I love.”

First of all, 419 was the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is probably the most prestigious literary award in Canada. That alone piqued my interest in reading this, so as soon as it came out in paperback I was all over that like flies to honey – or corpses, because for some reason flies like both.

If you aren’t put off yet, keep reading!

On the whole, I really quite enjoyed 419. It definitely lived up to the hype surrounding it because of the aforementioned Giller Prize win. I had experience reading a Will Ferguson book before – one co-written with his brother, Ian, called How to be a Canadian (which is hilarious and worth a read, by the way) – so I was thrilled to read something else that was so acclaimed. And my opinions are as follows:

Pros

It was very well written, as was to be expected. A book doesn’t win the Giller Prize for nothing. The characters were engaging. As a reader, you could feel the heartbreak and odd sort of detachment Laura feels after learning of her father’s death, and her frustration with the actions of her brother and mother.

As there were many main characters to follow, this translated into their narratives as well. Laura was the only North American main character; the others were from Africa, from Nigeria in particular: Amina, Winston, and Nnamdi. Each are involved with 419 in some way or another, and though their stories don’t start out together, Ferguson weaves their tales together almost flawlessly and by the end everything is so tightly connected you can hardly believe the characters hadn’t known each other all along. He explains very well the plight of Nigerians in such a lawless state, being overwhelmed and overpowered by the government and the gangs that help run it. It is clear with each passing chapter that he did thorough research to bring his novel to life.

Cons

One thing that really bothered me at first (I did get used to it over time) was Ferguson’s overuse of fragment sentences. I’m an advocate of fragment sentences when they add to the atmosphere, but this was too much. Since a very large portion of the novel was told through fragment sentences, it seems to be artistic style of his, but it was difficult to get used to.

Though reading about the day to day lives of Nigerians was fascinating, hearing about the constant struggle of the Delta clans against the oil companies got a bit much. They seemed to just seemed to go on and on about things that weren’t necessarily important to the plot. I started out really disliking the chapters in Nnamdi’s point of view because of this, but after a while grew to like him as he finally left the Delta and the oil companies were left behind, at least for the moment. Another thing that bothered me was the chapter lengths. Sue me, but I think chapters should be more than a paragraph long.

All in all

I really enjoyed 419 and so far have a very good opinion of Will Ferguon’s work. He is a literary icon, and I’m proud that he is Canadian. I haven’t read any of the other Giller nominees, but I will say that this was definitely one of the finest literary works I’ve read in a while.

★★★★☆

419 gets four of five stars. It was an excellent read altogether, but the fragment sentences really got to me. Picky picky.

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