Tuesday, April 9, 2013

419 by Will Ferguson

Yet another book deserving of the Giller Prize, in my opinion.  Ferguson expertly brings together several seemingly unrelated stories to illustrate the dangers of fraudulent internet scams and the havoc they can bring to both the victims and the minor players in the schemes.

The four main stories at the start are about Laura Curtis, a Calgary based editor whose father has died in a horrific car crash.  With the intervention of the police and the life insurance company, she slowly accepts that her father committed suicide after falling victim to a Nigerian internet fraud.  The title, 419, is the short form for these frauds, apparently based on the section of the Nigerian criminal legislation that prohibits them (with little effect).  Laura launches her own plan to find the perpetrators of the fraud and exact revenge - becoming quite ruthless in her own right.

We also hear the story of Winston, the original perpetrator of the fraud.  He's a small time petty thief, desperate to earn sufficient money to escape Nigeria.  But his life is complicated when he becomes successful at his swindling and is "taken under the wing" of a sickly, but deadly, organized crime boss.

Throughout the book, the narrative returns to two other stories in Nigeria; that of a pregnant Muslim woman who is walking through the desert to escape something (we never discover exactly what but likely the consequences that would befall her as a result of her pregnancy) and that of Nnamdi, a boy/young man from a small Delta fishing village whose livelihood is destroyed by the rapid growth of Nigeria's fledgling oil industry.  He starts out as a naive boy who learns from the foreign oil workers but becomes disillusioned as he sees his traditional way of life destroyed and he tries to re-invent himself as a mechanic.  But it his concern for the pregnant Muslim woman who crosses his path that is his ultimate undoing.

The book is clearly well researched - addressing the complexities of Nigeria's clans, colonial past, religious differences and abject poverty despite its rich natural resources.  It also paints a chilling picture of the Nigerian internet scheme that we've all sort of heard about but do not know a lot about.  At times it reads as a real thriller and it's hard to put down as you try to figure out how the different stories will intersect and ultimately be resolved.

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