Book Review: 419 by Will Ferguson
by Will Ferguson
Penguin Canada, 2012
The problem with prize-winning novels is, we can’t read them without thinking, “Would I have given this a prize?” We can’t read them without comparing them with the other contenders and second-guessing the work of the judges.
419 received the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize—a rather big deal here in Canada. No matter what people think about this book, with a Giller Prize win Will Ferguson won’t have any trouble signing book contracts for future projects.
Is he deserving? I think so.
419 begins with the stories of four very different, seemingly unconnected, people: Laura, a copy editor living in Calgary; Winston, a Nigerian internet scammer; Amina, a pregnant Muslim woman travelling through Nigeria alone to flee a mysterious threat; and Nnamdi, a boy from the Nigerian Delta who leaves his village to work for American oil interests. As savvy readers, we know they will inevitably connect, but Ferguson unfolds the story carefully, so we must keep reading to see how these disparate threads intertwine. Even when the inevitable meeting happens, we can’t predict the final outcome, so we must keep reading to see what transpires. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, but I would call it compelling.
419 is the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money through fraudulent means—internet email scams, for example. A significant portion of this book is set in Nigeria, and Ferguson does an outstanding job (Dare I say prize-winning?) of portraying Nigeria with harsh truths but respect and love. While reading, I thought repeatedly, “A Canadian wrote this?” How could a writer not born, raised and steeped in Nigerian culture capture it with such sensory precision? When reading Ferguson’s description of a car trip through Lagos, I could almost see, hear, smell the African city.
Ferguson wrote some beautiful phrases that I stopped and savoured. “She had outwalked her own dialect . . .” “Wealth produced garbage as surely as food produced feces.”
The book didn’t resolve itself in the way I would have wished, but it did resolve in a way that was true to the story.
So, what are the flaws? Perhaps the subject? Most North Americans have armed themselves with spam filters and skepticism enough to avoid falling prey to schemes like those portrayed in the book. I didn’t read it from an “If I’m not careful, this could happen to me” perspective, but more a “This is what used to happen to people” point of view.
I had to read this book because it won the Giller Prize. I tried to set its prize-winning status aside when reading. Was it deserving? I think so. But you should definitely give the other shortlisted books a try, too.