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419: A Novel by Will Ferguson

419: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Will Ferguson

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4064426,236 (3.69)106
Title:419: A Novel
Authors:Will Ferguson
Info:Viking Canada (2012), Hardcover, 416 pages

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419 by Will Ferguson



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It is probably a very rare individual – someone who either: 1) does not have an email account; 2) has an absolutely amazing spam filter; or 3) lives “off the grid” – who has not received what is generally referred to as a “phishing” email. Phishing emails take many forms, but at their heart, they are emails purporting to be from reputable companies/individuals seeking to induce the receiver of the email to either disclosure personal information, click on a link provided that will enable the sender to control/damage the individual’s computer or, as is the case with Ferguson’s novel [419], to obtain money or goods under false pretenses. [419] is an interesting read. Part police procedural, part autopsy of a familiar Nigerian email scam and part cautionary tale for any who might seek revenge by attempting to scam the scammer, Ferguson’s novel starts out a bit convoluted as he creates four distinct narratives: Laura, a reclusive copy editor and daughter of an e-mail scam victim; Winston, the educated but futureless Nigerian email scammer; Amina, a pregnant woman fleeing her northern Nigerian tribal ties for a promise of new life in the southern cities and Nnamdi, a fisherman’s son co-oped to work as a “mechanic” in the petroleum black market in the lawless frontiers of Nigeria.

This story is an ambitious examination of the complexities of reparative justice. Ferguson does a great job depicting a divergent cast of characters who are all shaped by the email scam industry. He also does a fantastic job presenting Nigeria so that the reader can “experience” the country through his story, but the overall effect is a bit of a literary mess. I found the myriad of story lines detracted the overall story from the book’s main focus. A number of the characters are underdeveloped, all of them – with the exception of Laura’s boorish brother – coming across as weak or weakened individuals with idealized views that do not fit with the circumstances they find themselves in. As much as I enjoyed Amina’s and Nnamdi’s stories, they do not appear to be ancillary to the main story, or at least not in a way that would explain the amount of focus – roughly half of the book – Ferguson gives them. I felt more frustration than satisfaction by the end of the story. Frustration that Ferguson’s attempt to present a story from the point of view of both victims and perpetrators comes cross lacking the earnestness Ferguson tries to convey. I also do not see [419] as a dark literary thriller unless we go a bit low key with the ‘thriller’ classification and go mainstream with the ‘literary’ classification. I am also a bit surprised that this one won the 2012 Giller Prize, beating out, among others, Kim Thuy’s [Ru], which I absolutely loved.

Overall, an interesting read about internet email scams and the Nigerian turmoil experienced by the oil industry’s presence in Nigeria, but lacking the powerful delivery I expected from an important literary prize winner. ( )
  lkernagh | Apr 12, 2017 |
The Nigerian email scam which seeks funds on behalf of some poor suffering Nigerian is the centre plot of this story. One of the victims is a retired Calgary man whose family, in particular, his daughter seeks revenge on the perpetrators.
This is a story about victims and they are not just those gullible enough to fall for these emails scams. Victims are strewn across Nigeria because of government corruption and the insatiable demands of the oil giants in the Delta. This is a good book but I found it dwelt too long on the Amina and Naambe stories. ( )
  MaggieFlo | Feb 23, 2017 |
This novel won the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, but I never read the book until now because it’s on my book club’s reading list. I’m not totally convinced that it’s worthy of the award.

After her father dies in a suspicious car crash, Laura Curtis learns that he fell victim to a Nigerian email scam which has left his widow virtually destitute. This plot in Canada is eventually connected to three characters in Nigeria. Winston is an email scammer who has little future in his home country. Amina is a young pregnant woman fleeing tribal connections in the north and looking for a new life in the south. Nnamdi is a young man who becomes a player in the black market after his home region, the Niger Delta, is devastated by irresponsible oil drilling.

The novel examines the theme of exploitation – how the hunted become the hunter become the hunted in a seemingly endless cycle. Laura’s brother, feeling his family to be victims of scammers, becomes a scambaiter. Laura sets out to get restitution and revenge but ends up a victim too. Some of the 419 internet scammers see their activities as payback for the raping of Nigeria by white men, revenge for the scourges of colonialism. Winston, as one of the scammers, is a hunter but he becomes the prey of a criminal mastermind. Nnamdi is a victim of the oil companies and their irresponsible drilling and so he becomes a predator, using skills taught him by the companies and becoming involved in a scheme to sell stolen oil to the government: “illegal fuel to a legal depot” (229). But then he becomes a pawn in someone else’s criminal activities.

One can even go back in history to see exploitation and its consequences. As Nnamdi admits, his people, the Ijaw, kidnapped people for slavers, and tribal animosities remain: “’We Ijaw captured and sold a lot of Igboos over the years. They are still mad at us about that’” (262). Nnamdi believes “the Ijaw had never been subjugated, never been enslaved. They had been the hunters, not the prey.” But this is not really true. Now the Niger Delta, the homeland of the Ijaw, is exploited by foreign oil companies; the entire ecosystem of the delta has been devastated and their livelihoods destroyed. Many Ijaw see the oil-revenue sharing formula with the Nigerian Federal government as unfair so there have been several high-profile clashes with federal authorities, including kidnappings like the one described (266-267). It becomes difficult to determine who is the exploiter and who is exploited.

I had some difficulty with characterization. Perhaps I’m naïve but I found Henry Curtis’ gullibility unconvincing. He was an educated man and would surely have heard about internet scams via the media. No year is indicated in the correspondence with Henry, but the police already know exactly how the scams work so they are obviously not new crimes. Laura is a mild-mannered copyeditor who transforms into a fearless scambuster who manages to outwit some of the bad guys? But then after her experiences, she shows surprising naivety. Amina remains flat because little of her background is given. We never learn why she is so determined to escape from northern Nigeria though we might speculate that her pregnancy has something to do with it. Nnamdi is well developed, but he seems to transform into a mechanical wizard very quickly. His devotion to Amina is not explained to my satisfaction; he meets her and immediately takes her under his care?

Ferguson’s experience as a travel writer and humourist are obvious in this book. His descriptions of Nigeria (language, food, customs, ethnic divisions, politics) make the country come alive. His descriptions of Calgary seem bland by comparison. There is not much humour, but for the visit with Winston’s parents. (And their blindness to Winston’s activities mirrors the Curtis family’s blindness to Henry’s.)

This is what I would consider a solid book. Its weaknesses in characterization, however, are not what I expect in a Giller Prize winner. Perhaps the other contenders were not strong either.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Jan 23, 2017 |
I learned a lot of things about the Nigerian email scams that have plagued and plugged our email boxes. I once actually even finished reading an entire entreaty, shaking my head in disbelief that a) someone could actually write such a thing and think that someone would fall for it, and b) that some people actually do fall for it. But I never knew anything about that world, and this book sure opened my eyes to that world of conniving thievery.
By far the most interesting parts of the book are those set in Nigeria -- it was fascinating to read about the devastating effects on society of the oil industry, and of the webs of intrigue involved in the email scamming industry, and even of the scam-the-scammers roles. Just as the NIgerian story lines about Winston and Nnamdi would get perking along nicely, the story would switch disappointingly back to the Canadian lines. There were multiple, too many, frayed threads that were woven clumsily together. The Nigerian sideplot with Amina -- what was that for? It was boring and didn't fit and seemed irrelevant and contrived. And what was up with the longing eyes of the detective, staring at the apt building of Laura? The characters were poorly developed and unconvincing.
There was far too much journalistic digression about the mechanics and explanations of the 419 scams; a little would be good, but this was too much. It felt lecturing and preachy.
No, there were just too many confused storylines which synergistically weakened the whole thing.
Some sharp editing could have pared this down in half and resulted in a taut twisty thriller. Makes me wonder again: why don't editors' names ever appear in books? ( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
The earlier sections set in Nigeria were by far the most effective. I found the Canadian plot dull and the characters involved in it wooden and uninspiring. ( )
  Vivl | Jan 8, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
So what to make of 419? Surely, talented authors should stretch their bounds. Ferguson can do many things, from travel writing to joke-telling to satire. What he can’t do is present believable earnestness. As an artist, 419 plays to all of his faults, and few of his talents. He has attempted to test himself by writing an international tragedy in the vein of Michael Ondaatje, but has imported many more of Ondaatje’s excesses than achievements.
The novel is further enlivened by sharp dialogue and imagery. Looking out from her apartment window at Calgary’s crane-crowned winter skyline, Laura sees “a city that was constantly erasing and rewriting itself. A cold city, exhaling steam.” Later, Nnamdi remembers the day the men from the oil company suddenly emerged from the dense mangrove thickets to stake the villagers’ ancestral land: “More and more men boiled out of the [jungle] gap like ants.”

But too often, especially in the novel’s first half, the prose reveals a talented author working against the instincts and storytelling gifts that served him so well in his other works. Hopefully Ferguson finds equally compelling material to work with in his next novel, be it comic or otherwise, and this time trusts his gut a little more.
added by vancouverdeb | editQuill and Quire
Until Ferguson’s characters move toward inevitable confrontations in Lagos, 419 suffers some drag. But from roughly page 187 on, you won’t sleep until you finish, and then rest won’t come easily. Riveting. Provocative.
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A car, falling through darkness.
"Four one nine is not a game, it is a contest of wills," Ironsi-Egobia continued. "It is Nigerian cunning versus oyibo greed, and in such a tussle, cunning always has the advantage. Why? Because greed clouds men's eyes, fogs their gaze. Cunning focuses it. We are tax collectors, Adam. We charge a tax on greed. We should be congratulated, not prosecuted, and yet it is we who are called the criminals. Criminals! They talk about Nigeria's 'culture of corruption.' What of Europe's 'culture of greed'? What of America's? What of these oyibos agreeing to schemes that are so clearly illegal, were they to be true? Moving millions of dollars out of a poverty-stricken nation, profiteering on Nigeria's hardships? Are the mugus not criminals too? Aspiring criminals, but criminals still. Are they not accomplices as much as they are victims? This is what the fools at the EFCC fail to see."
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Book description
A startlingly original tale of heartbreak and suspense

A car tumbles down a snowy ravine. Accident or suicide?

On the other side of the world, a young woman walks out of a sandstorm in sub-Saharan Africa. In the labyrinth of the Niger Delta, a young boy learns to survive by navigating through the gas flares and oil spills of a ruined landscape. In the seething heat of Lagos City, a criminal cartel scours the internet looking for victims.

Lives intersect, worlds collide, a family falls apart. And it all begins with a single email: “Dear Sir, I am the son of an exiled Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help ...”

419 takes readers behind the scene of the world’s most insidious internet scam. When Laura’s father gets caught up in one such swindle and pays with his life, she is forced to leave the comfort of North America to make a journey deep into the dangerous back streets and alleyways of the Lagos underworld to confront her father’s killer. What she finds there will change her life forever ...

From the internationally bestselling travel writer Will Ferguson, author of Happiness™ and Spanish Fly, comes a novel both epic in its sweep and intimate in its portrayal of human suffering. It’s a story of love in a time of darkness, of one woman’s search for redemption, and of a young boy who will triumph above it all.
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A car tumbles through darkness down a snowy ravine. A woman without a name walks out of a dust storm in 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 ... ' At once a chilling thriller about a lonely woman avenging her father's death and an epic portrait of morality and corruption across the globe, Will Ferguson's Giller Prize-winning novel plunges into the labyrinth of li.… (more)

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