I finally break with a long string of novels about family dysfunction and land in a city that I think is supposed to be Calgary - somewhere in Alberta, anyway - and Nigeria: ranked 162 of 190 on the UNDP's Human Development Index and dead last on the list of countries The Economist recently reported
a baby would best be born in, in 2013.
Ferguson's 2012 Giller-prize winning novel brings West Africa (or at least a sliver of it) to life through the cesspool of desperation, greed and poverty that is directly responsible for breeding the many forms of the '419' scheme: "Dearest Madame, my uncle a wealthy businessman is terminally ill and needs to deposit $34,739,952 in your bank account...".
It starts with a simple and intriguing premise: who responds to these things anyway? It proceeds to link four parallel plots together to show what happens when someone does, and how complex the web of corruption and responsibility is: who owes, who pays, who wins, who loses. Who is prey, and who is predator?
The plot has a classic detective story feel to it and that remains the centrifugal force holding it together, but I think it's Ferguson's unique sensibility as a travel writer that really lifts this story out of the ho-hum. There is so much movement
in it - three of the four plots involve journeys: 1) an impoverished woman, Amina, travels south from the Sahel to seek a better life for herself and her unborn child; 2) a young man of great promise, Nnamdi, travels north out of the Nigerian Delta to do the same; 3) a sad and lonely copy editor, Laura, travels east (or would she travel west?) from Alberta to Nigeria, to avenge her father's death. The fourth plot - that of the scammer himself and the network that consumes and supports him - is still, with WWW-enabled reach, waiting to ensnare the three.
There's a proverb: Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle...when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.
In this story, everyone is running. Who is predator, and who is prey?
A most worthwhile read.