419: A Novel by Will Ferguson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Two and a half stars.
Winner of the 2012 Giller Prize, 419 impresses when it takes its readers into Nigeria and details the internet scams which have emerged from that country. “419” is the “section of the Nigerian Criminal Code “that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretenses” (111).
However the author's non-fiction roots are showing. Ferguson favours giving a lot of background information about the 419 scam over story and character development. The book had the potential to be either a great crime thriller or a cultural exploration of Nigeria, but right now, it’s in no man’s land.
Even though the ending is suspenseful, it feels forced. Characters important to the final outcome aren’t fully introduced until halfway into the book. As I read the novel, I struggled to connect the seemingly random storylines. For example, the romantic interest Sergeant Brisebois has in Laura doesn’t seem to serve any literary purpose, except to reinforce the unexpected happy ending.
I also found some of the characters to be problematic. Laura and Warren represent stereotypical Westerners and I didn’t see enough growth in them to find them interesting. Amina wanders throughout Nigeria and the novel, but why? I suppose it is to flesh out Ferguson’s portrait of Nigeria, but I don’t understand how this character furthers the themes or the plot.
I did enjoy how the book described Nigeria and 419 does convey the complexity of the country. Exploring the moral murkiness of the scammers and the scammed had potential, but the novel does not go further than the politically correct response. The Nigerians justify robbing the rich because their wealth is “[b]lood money, all of it. Slaves and diamonds, gold and oil. Even chocolate. It is all stained...The crowns of British royalty glitter with blood, with rubies and emeralds wrenched out of Africa” (120-121). Even Laura, at the end, seems to do the “right thing” after harbouring a festering anger and inflicting her own retribution.
Since the book had won the Giller Prize, I had high expectations for 419. As I'm reading through the list of the other nominated books, I find that 419 doesn't match the depth of its competitors.
View all my reviews