In 1985, the civil war being fought between the northern, Muslim government in the north of Sudan and the non-Muslim sou...moreThis review contains spoilers.
In 1985, the civil war being fought between the northern, Muslim government in the north of Sudan and the non-Muslim south came to the village where eleven-year-old Salva Dut was at school. With the sound of gunfire in their ears, the entire village and the school children who come from the surrounding villages all ran into the forest, fleeing the violence but with nowhere to go. Salva is alone - all of his family members are at his village which is in the direction of the fighting. Falling in with a group of people who let him tag along, they are held up by some rebel soldiers who take the men and older boys but tell Salva he's too young. Staying with the remnants of the group he first fled with, he wakes up one morning in a barn to find himself completely alone: they have left him behind, no doubt feeling that he is too young to keep up.
After a few days of helping the woman who lives nearby in exchange for some food, a small group of people from his own tribe, the Dinka - though not his village - come along the road and grudgingly agree to take him with them. As they progress, the group grows larger, and one day Salva is excited to find his uncle with them. Armed with a gun and experience as a soldier, Uncle becomes their unofficial leader and with his help and encouragement, Salva manages to keep up with the adults as the cross the Nile and then desert, walking ever onwards to the Ethiopian border and the refugee camp there. But arriving is not the end of his story.
Salva's true story, as told to author Linda Sue Park, is juxtaposed against the story of eleven-year-old Nya from the Nuer tribe, a rival tribe to the Dinka, who must go several times a day on a long walk to the pond to collect water for her family. It is her main job and keeps her occupied, but it's a very hard job. The only reprieve is when the tribe moves to camp by the big lake, but they can't live there all the time because of the fighting with the Dinka, who also come to the lake during the dry months. Everything changes though, the day some strange men come in a jeep and show them where they will dig for water.
The two stories of Salva and Nya don't fully connect until the end, when we see the fruit of Salva's life journey and the task he has set himself: to return to Sudan as the leader of an aid organisation that provides wells for villages like Nya's. Salva was one of thousands and thousands of "Lost Boys", boys who walked through the desert to reach refugee camps. After years in the Ethiopian refugee camp, there was a change of government and it was suddenly, and violently, closed. Salva ended up leading a group of several thousand lost boys to another refugee camp, this time in Kenya. Displaced and orphaned, many of them died on the journey, and life in the refugee camps was merely bearable. With no home to go back to, and their own complex tribal histories preventing them from simply moving somewhere else, only the healthiest were granted asylum in places like the United States, where Salva eventually finds himself, taken in by a couple and their four children in Rochester, in the state of New York - his first experience of snow and real cold.
Nya is a composite character: not someone based on one individual, but a character based on the lives of many girls just like her who are sent to fetch water every day, a long and perilous trek. The task also means they never receive an education, and the contaminated water means many children and sickly adults die from parasites. A well with a pump in her village means big changes for Nya and everyone else. Freeing so many children from carrying water all the time means they can go to school - and can even enable a village to concentrate their resources and build a school. We take our clean and cheap water supply for granted, but elsewhere it is appreciated as the precious resource it really is.
Told in a simple style accessible to children as well as teens, Park provides some basic, comprehensive background to the conflict - a completely separate one from the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The Civil War started in 1983 and continued for a couple of decades, as the south - where the people are from different tribes with their own beliefs - fought against the government which wanted the whole country to be Muslim. It's a simple overview but by its very simplicity makes it accessible to young readers. There are signs, scenes, which show that both sides were equally vicious - it's never a matter of south=good, north=bad. But the focus is on Salva's personal story of survival, not the political and religious agenda causing the conflict. Coming from a position of pretty much complete ignorance (I hadn't even realised there were two separate, unrelated "wars" in Sudan), this was a good starting point for me and gives me a solid foundation upon which to learn more.
The simplicity of the narration didn't detract from the truly tragic and horrifying situation Salva and so many others found themselves in. The only other book I've read that was similar was A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, which is set in Sierra Leone. The sad fact is, Salva's story is almost a common one in Africa. So many countries being torn apart by tribal, religious or ethnic conflict, often motivated or exacerbated by the plundering of resources. It doesn't help that the countries like Sudan are merely colonial, or European, constructs, often forcing warring groups within the same border. Reading about an individual like Salva really helps to personalise and humanise what otherwise can seem confusing, overwhelming and utterly alien to us in the West.
For such a short book, it packed quite the emotional wallop and certainly did not leave me dry-eyed. I loved how the title refers not just to Nya's endless walk to water but also to Salva's own walk to water: his long walk to safety which was little more than a mirage; and his life's journey to find a way to help his people by returning to establish water wells. A great introduction to the Lost Boys and the civil conflict in Sudan for children, and one I recommend to readers of all ages as well.(less)
When the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven year...moreWhen the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven years old who still spends most of his time with his mother, or playing on the floor of his father's general store. He did sometimes go out with the others boys, including his friends William K and Moses, to watch the cattle, but he is with his mother the day the government helicopters come, killing indiscriminately, which was only the beginning. When the villagers didn't leave, the government-backed murahaleen - Arabs on horses - come sweeping in to finish the job. It is the last time Achak sees his mother, and he has no idea what fate has befallen any of his siblings or stepmothers. He can only flee, running as far as he can.
He finally comes upon a large group of boys like him being led by his old teacher, a young man called Dut Majok, who has a tendency to lead them in circles but never stops looking out for the boys and sees them, after months of walking and encounters with lions, crocodiles and hostile villagers, to Ethiopia and the refugee camp called Pinyudo on the Gilo River. When a change in government comes to Ethiopia - otherwise known as a military coup - the refugees are violently driven out, many killed by soldiers and many others lost the river they are forced to cross, or the crocodiles that live there. It takes a year for the survivors - including thousands of "Lost Boys" like Achak, to reach Kenya, where a new refugee camp is constructed at Kakuma, which basically means nowhere - a hot, dry, dusty desert land that no one wants, no one except the local tribespeople that is.
There Achak spends many years until, finally, towards the end of 2001 his name if finally called to be one of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls being relocated to the United States. A new beginning and many hopes and dreams that he has barely dared to entertain before suddenly seem possible. After all this time of dodging bullets and starvation, Achak is sitting on the plane in Nairobi, along with a group of other young men like him, when the news comes through: no planes will be leaving. New York has been attacked, the Twin Towers are burning, get off the plane. If you can think of anything that could go wrong for Deng, it happened. But he does finally make it to the city of Atlanta where he meets his sponsors and starts working on his goal of getting a degree - which turns out to be much harder and more complicated (and costly) than he ever thought possible.
This is the first book by Eggers that I have read, even though I have three others already (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun and A Hologram for the King), so I was able to read this purely as Deng's story, in Deng's voice. Deng is a strong, vivid character, and his personal story comes truly alive in the creative hands of Eggers. Not being able to tell where Eggers' voice and writing style intrudes on what is, essentially, someone else's story, it read smoothly and convincingly. Full of details, historical context, explanations skilfully woven in, as well as philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings, and an intense emotional engagement and humour. This is a man - one of many - who was shat on by life and circumstance, who questioned his belief in his god many times, but who persevered and struggled on. For the Sudanese, his is just one story of thousands like it, indistinguishable most of the time, and certainly nothing special, but for us, it is a hero's story, and a bold, honest, brutal one at that.
It begins in the present day and is told in present tense, and introduces us to Valentino Achak Deng as he answers his door to a couple of black Americans who proceed to rob him at gunpoint. It is no coincidence that Eggers chose to start here and have Achak tell his story over the course of 24 hours as flashbacks to the past: contrasting the violence he experiences in America to that of Sudan is very telling. As the African part of the story unfolds, it casts a harsher and brighter light on the working poor and the criminally-minded of America, a critical eye and a disgusted shake of the head.
A recurring theme in the story of his past is one of inflated hope and disappointed expectations. The Lost Boys come from primitive villages and they know nothing about the world outside of Dinka land. They can't even conceptualise what Ethiopia is, the idea of another country, but they build up grand expectations in their heads, which are based on nothing more than wishful thinking in the face of extreme privation. Moving to America, the refugees are possessed of even more fanciful imaginings, the kind that are limited to your scope of experience but also take them to the heights: servants, bowls of oranges, palaces and so forth. It's not their fault they had no real ability to grasp what it would be like, or their lack of perspective. They learned quickly, but not all of them were successful in their new home.
By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand [that emigrated to America] are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters. [pp.475-6]
I rather think he's a bit hard on himself, or society is. Take a group of people from a primitive place with little to no creature comforts, who have endured things for years that we can barely fathom, and leave them more-or-less to their own devices in a strange new world full of new temptations - and let's face it, the United States is proud of the "freedoms" it offers - and you'll get instances of abuse in many forms. You can't fast-forward industrialisation, progress and change in all facets of life like that without some repercussions. That's a lot to take in. Even us westerners who grew up with the advanced technology and conveniences that we're used to, aren't dealing with it very well.
Deng's story is a long one, and it's by no means a quick read. Highly involved, reflective and introspective, it more-or-less flows chronologically but not always, and dates are fluid - not surprisingly, since they didn't keep calendars and don't use our system of months and days (they would know what season they were born in, and can count backwards to know how old they are, more or less, but couldn't tell you their date-of-birth by our calendars). His story fleshes out the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War more than any other book I've read, and makes a long-lasting impression on you intellectually and emotionally.
One of the philosophical musings is captured in the title, What is the What, which comes from a Dinka legend about God and the first man and woman. God offers the Dinka people a choice: they can have cattle, or the What. They choose the cattle, and consider them the blessed, favoured people, for their cattle are everything: milk, food, wealth, land. Meanwhile, God gives the What to their Arab neighbours. Whenever Achak had heard this story in the past, the What is simply why the Arabs are inferior. "The Dinka were given the cattle first, and the Arabs had tried to steal them. God had given the Dinka superior land, fertile and rich, and had given them cattle, and though it was unfair, that was how God had intended it and there was no changing it." [p.63] But when his father tells it to some visiting Arab merchants months before the war arrives, he leaves is open-ended, and leaves his young son thinking. Achak finds himself asking people on his long journey, what is the What? What did God give the Arabs that he didn't give the Dinka? The answer is never given but it is implied. The sense that I got is difficult to articulate but it goes something like this: the Dinka got a harmonious, largely peaceful way of life, left intact for millennia, with no ambition or curiosity about the world. The Arabs got the ambition and curiosity, a drive to better themselves and an unending sense of dissatisfaction. The What was the apple of knowledge in Genesis' garden of Eden.
I would love to hear the story of how Achak Deng met Dave Eggers, how the plan for the book - the proceeds of which go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which builds schools in South Sudan - came about. When we leave Achak in Atlanta after his harrowing 24-hour ordeal, he has made some important decisions and revised his aims and also seems to be possessed of a new kind of conviction, but it sheds no light on what happened next. Clearly, or so it seems to me, it wasn't Deng's determination to get a degree that made things happen for him so much as the book, this book, and all the work he did to promote it. The job of starting a charitable foundation and getting things done is a daunting one to me, but I am full of admiration for the people who come from nothing and successfully do it (the subject of Linda Park-Sue's fictionalised memoir for children, A Long Walk to Water, Salva Dut, also began a foundation to bring water to South Sudanese villages).
This is a hard book to read and an equally hard one to talk about. There's a lot going on and I can see why there are so many reading guides floating around the web. I loved it on many levels, even though it's not an enjoyable novel - though there are moments of humour, it's so interwoven with tragedy that it's hard to crack a smile. It's a powerful novel for the way it tells the story, and for the story itself. It's a deeply human story, shedding light into the cracks and crevices of a part of Africa that we generally don't spend much time thinking about. Checking out Deng's foundation website, it stirred me nearly to tears to see the progress he's already made on the beautiful school in Marial Bai, to read about the school farm and so on. This is a life, and what a life! (less)
After the death of her mother, Camille Werner is going through the condolence letters when she comes across a letter that is rather strange. First of...moreAfter the death of her mother, Camille Werner is going through the condolence letters when she comes across a letter that is rather strange. First of all, it's not addressed to her - the envelope is, but the contents aren't. There's no return address. And it doesn't read like a letter, but embarks on a story. The writer, Louis, tells of meeting and befriending Annie as a child in the village of N. in 1933. He was twelve, Annie was ten, and the world was changing.
Camille thinks at first that the letters have been addressed to her by mistake, that there must be someone else in Paris with the same name as her - but she can't find one. The letters keep arriving, the story keeps unfolding. Louis moves forward in time, to meeting Annie again in 1943, when she tells him what really happened with Madame and Monsieur M, a young bourgeois couple who move into a big house in the middle of the town.
Annie becomes a frequent visitor to Madame M, who encourages her passion for painting. But when Annie is fifteen she leaves for Paris with the couple; Madame's husband, Paul, a journalist, later joins the war effort and is sent to the front. Louis tells Annie's side of the story, and as it unfolds Camille becomes more invested in discovering who Louis is, and what it all has to do with her. Louis reveals one truth, and then another, the words of Madame M, but it is Camille herself who comes to understand the last, shattering, heart-breaking piece.
There is a lot to recommend French author Grémillon's debut novel, which is on the surface of things a simple, even predictable story of a family secret and the lives it affected. Touching on themes of motherhood, social pressure and identity, as well as the damage that lies, secrets and betrayals can inflict, this is a realistic, deeply human story taking place against the backdrop of Germany's invasion and occupation of France.
Divided into two parallel time frames, 1975 and the 30s and 40s, the focus is on the past, with the "present" scenes of Camille's life sketched out with telling details that flesh out her character and her life - she's fallen pregnant by a man who doesn't want children, and decides to keep it; she's lost both her parents and has only her brother, Pierre, left; and she works as an editor at a publishing house. Grémillon employs a "less is more" tactic with Camille's side of the story, ensuring that Louis' story takes centre stage and doesn't get overshadowed by anything from the "present"; in fact, I sometimes forgot all about Camille, which actually made it easy to switch between the two. The book also used the visual device of drastically different fonts - Camille's first-person sections were set in something like Arial, while Louis' letters were in your standard bookish font (much easier on the eyes, too).
The parallels between what Camille's going through in her own life, and the events that unfold in Louis' story, allow Camille - and the reader - to empathise with both Annie and Madame M (you won't be able to sympathise with Madame M until you hear her side of the story, but it will come). The theme of motherhood and the pressures not just of society but from our own selves, is a strong one throughout. As Camille says,
I used to think abortion was a good thing: progress, a woman's free will... Now I find myself struggling in a trap which, like every trap, once smelled sweetly, in this case of freedom. Progress for women, my arse! If I keep the child, I'm guilty vis-à-vis Nicolas, who doesn't want it. If I get rid of it, I am guilty vis-à-vis the baby. Abortion may claim to rescue women from the slavery of motherhood, but it imposes another form of slavery: guilt. More than ever, it is on our own that we handle or mishandle motherhood. [p.89]
Through this lens we watch Annie, at fifteen years old, offer to be a surrogate for the baby Madame M has spent years trying to have, having put herself through treatments both bizarre and extreme. For much of the book, I didn't find the outcome necessarily predictable, because it seemed, for quite some time, that the truth could go either way. Still, if you go into this expecting a clever mystery you will probably be disappointed - this isn't so much a puzzle to solve, even though that's the structure of it, as it is a tragic story of two women in isolation, wanting the same thing, ready to do something extreme to get it. It is this human story that really reaches deep and holds you fast to the book; in fact, it's a quick and riveting read, one you can easily read in a day if you have the time.
Where the novel suffered a bit was in the writing; for a debut novel, it's good, and yet it's also a bit of a mess at times. I got the feeling the translator made an effort to stick to a literal translation as much as possible, rather than doing the extra twist of interpretation to make things work better in English. Take this paragraph, for instance, telling us the story of what happened to Annie's father while she was in Paris with Madame M:
On 3 June 1940, the guards had thrown them into the prison courtyard. The government didn't want them to fall into German hands. The Germans would have released them for sure. Ever since the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Communists had been in the Boches' good books. They were being moved to another prison, they had to walk quickly, the guards were hitting them, shouting at them. It was late morning, they were on their way through Paris, when a guard suddenly pushed him out of the group and told him to get the hell out of there and fast, opportunity never knocks twice at anyone's door. They had let him go, and he still could not fathom why, but he was free, that was all that mattered. [pp.102-3]
This made absolutely no sense to me when I was reading the book, and when Annie says to Louis in the retelling, "His story made no sense to me at all" I was relieved - only, she meant that she couldn't believe her parents had become separated; that was her sticking point. Even later, after finally understanding that he had been locked up because he'd once been a member of the Communist Party, the passage doesn't really make sense. It skips over his arrest, which is key to understanding the passage, since the last we saw of him he was living in his own home with his wife. It also skips over the fact that it was the French who'd arrested him, and why it was a crime. For the sake of context, these are small details that could easily have been included to prevent me from getting a headache.
Aside from some odd phrasing, and the kind of writing mistakes that are pretty basic but hard to say whom they belong to, author or translator, the prose was very readable and skips along at a merry pace. Sometimes things don't make sense at the time, because certain details have been left out which are revealed later on for a "A-HA!" moment, but when the narration is following a continuous, chronological story-telling pattern, it's smooth and riveting.
It was quite refreshing to have the war in the background rather than the foreground - it wasn't about the war at all, there just happened to be a war at the time these characters were living their lives. Yet it's not an incidental war: it impacts the characters, and adds a level of tension and atmosphere that gives events an extra layer of fear and uncertainty.
The ending was what really got to me, when reading this book. After reading the last few lines, I actually sat up straight, looked up and said something like "Oh wow." I'd become so caught up in the story of Annie and Madame M, that I hadn't been thinking of the present day, or the possibility that Louis was wrong about what happened to Annie. I love that feeling, when something comes out of nowhere and hits you on the head (not literally - I don't enjoy being hit on the head by anything!), giving you one of those "ahhhhh" moments of satisfaction at a story well ended.
Even before that, though, I enjoyed the murky greyness of Annie and Madame M's stories. Neither is a bad or a good woman. They are human, and they are mothers, and the moral murkiness of it all is both thought-provoking and entertaining (not in the sense that I enjoyed it at their expense, but in the sense that I enjoy having my conscience engaged as much as my intellect). I'd love to go into details, but I didn't want to give away any more of the plot than my edition's blurb did, lest I spoil the reading experience for anyone else.
For all its sometimes-confusing narration, The Confidant was a haunting and emotional - but not at all melodramatic - exploration into the hearts of women who yearn for a child, and the lengths they'll go to to have that child, love it and protect it, all told against the backdrop of a war that took the lives of millions of people, and the French government's public announcements that the people have a duty to have more children. (less)
In present day Alberta, a car plummets over the edge of a ravine, killing the elderly driver. There are two sets of tyre marks on the road above, and...moreIn present day Alberta, a car plummets over the edge of a ravine, killing the elderly driver. There are two sets of tyre marks on the road above, and at first the police suspect the dead man was being chased. But the marks belong to the same car: it had taken him two tries to get the angle right to miss the guard rails in order to drive off the road.
His family never suspected a thing. Never realised how troubled the retired high school teacher was, never realised he had sent all his and his wife's money to someone in Nigeria, even taking out a second mortgage against the house already long paid for, and is well over a hundred thousand dollars in debt. Never realised that he felt like he was being watched, that he was being threatened, that he had increased his life insurance policy before killing himself, putting his daughter Laura down as the sole beneficiary.
But the police discover it all, and ask the family: Do you know anyone from Nigeria? Have you ever heard of 419?
Laura takes her father's death particularly hard. A reclusive copy editor who works from home, she is distracted by all the grammatical and spelling errors in the emails her father received, until she notices that there is a pattern - like the authors she edits, the writers of the emails have a style, and it might be possible to find the person behind her father's death through the way they write. It's not about the money, she tells herself: it's about losing her father, a man who had been trying to reach out to her but to whom she had not given her time. A man she misses deeply.
In Nigeria, a lone woman walks through the desert with a jerry can of water balanced on her head. Pregnant, she has long ago traded her jewellery for food and is reduced to scavenging at campsites and chewing on nuts. Finally reaching the city of Zaria, the furthest she's ever been in her life. But even here, there are people who recognise the ritual tribal scars on her face that can tell a person exactly which village she is from; even Zaria is not far enough away. And she she keeps walking, heading to the next city.
And in the west, in the Niger Delta, European oil companies strike deals with the government to drill for oil, destroying the mangrove swamps, poisoning the water, killing the fish that are the livelihood of the Igbo people who live there. Nnamdi is a boy when the Dutch first come and a teenager when they give him, and many other boys, jobs in an attempt to pacify the tribe and give them a vested interest in protecting the pipelines that snake through their land. What Nnamdi learns on the refinery island will save his life several times, and take him far from home.
All three - Laura, the unnamed woman, and Nnamdi - are on a trajectory that will bring them together in unexpected ways.
This is an epic story and demonstrates Ferguson's ability to weave seemingly disparate plot lines and characters together. It also shows the impressive depth of his research, which I had noticed from reading his earlier novel, Spanish Fly. In the latter book - about three con artists during the Depression in the United States - you could tell that Ferguson's research and fascination with the cons was stronger than his storytelling, and his characters suffered for it. With 419, though, there was a much better balance between the scope of his research - which is truly extensive - and the storytelling. As a story, I really enjoyed this. As insight into life in Nigeria and the situation between the locals and the oil companies, it's enlightening and terrifying and disheartening. Where it falters a bit is with Laura and her side of the story, especially towards the end. I would say that Ferguson wrote the Nigerian side of the story, and the Nigerian characters, more believable, honest and human than he did Laura. Which is curious, when you think about it.
It begins in an unnamed city in Canada which I figure is either Calgary or some more northern city - the Rockies are mentioned, and Laura absently tracks the ups and downs of the oil industry by watching the cranes move on the horizon: when they're still, it's a bad day. (Alberta is home to the infamous Tar Sands.) I'm always curious about why authors decide to leave a city unnamed like that. The bulk of the novel is set in Nigeria and covers pretty much the entire country - it was easy enough to picture the individual settings and get an idea of how close they are, as well as the very diverse landscape, based on how things are described, but I would still have loved a map. I love maps, and I find them useful in creating a more three-dimensional picture in my imagination.
If you're unfamiliar with what "419" is, it is an email scam that nets millions of dollars for Nigeria and is one of their biggest industries, after oil. It begins with an email, and it's a fair bet that by now, anyone who has at least one email address would have received at least one of these messages. I hadn't had one in a really long time - well I get spam mail on gmail (never Hotmail) but I never open them; most of those are about winning lots of pounds from Britain for something-or-other (or messages from Canadian banks telling me there's a problem with my account - right, and I don't even have accounts with those banks!). Incidentally, we also get one via phone here, someone Indian asking us about the Microsoft bug reported on our computer - a-ha, yeah, nice try. You ask yourself, how can these possibly work? They're so blatantly obvious, so incredibly stupid. But they do. Not with you or me, but with other people. In the case of Ferguson's novel, the 419 scam that lured in Laura's dad - a lovely, kind-hearted man whose two children didn't have much time to give him anymore - it was a plea for his help in aiding a young woman. And of course, the sender had done their research, having found out lots of information about him via the woodworking forum he frequented, which enabled the sender to make his message personal, intimate even - clearly, they had the right person.
Ironically, the day I wrote this review I received a private message through Goodreads - the user was deleted before I could report it so they're very quick on catching them, but just goes to show that they really do find people everywhere, on forums etc. I thought, before I deleted it, I'd include it here as a sample message, very typical of 419:
I am Barr. Richard Spencer residing in Accra-Ghana,a personal attorney to late Mr.Robert ,a nationality of your country who died in tragic motor accident by running into a stationery Trailer without warning sign on December 26 , 2006.
I have contacted you to assist in repatriating his fund valued at USD$45,200,000.00 left behind by my late client before it gets confiscated or declared unserviceable by the Security Finance Firm where this huge amount were deposited.
Reply to my private email address for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please I will advise you to create a new email address at YAHOO,HOTMAIL OR GMAIL and contact me back because this site is rejecting the the full details of what I wanted to send you.
I honestly couldn't have made that up (to say the least, I'm incapable of writing something with that many errors!), but it's interesting to note it's talking about Ghana - 419 seems to have spread. The messages are always like that: help us liquidate someone's money before the government seizes it, all you have to do is hold it in your account, and you'll get a commission. But there is no money, and that's not how it works. In Nigeria, it's a huge underground business, employing thousands. As one of the RCMP officers explains to Laura and her family, it's named after "the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretenses." [p.111] I did notice, though, that this one wasn't half as well-targeted as the one that nets Laura's dad. It doesn't even use my name!
In the story, Laura's blustering older brother Warren is the character created as a foil, the person added to the story to show just how easily people can fall for things. In fact, the whole conversation with the RCMP when they're shown the emails, the forged documents, and had it all explained to them, is pure exposition.
"Your father signed a document granting power of attorney to the law office of Bello & Usman in Lagos." "So why aren't you contacting them?" asked Warren. "Because they don't exist," said Laura. "Jesus Christ, Warren, what part of this don't you understand?" "Language," said their mother, roused from her indifference. "What if someone took them up on their offer?" Laura asked. "Flew to Lagos and confronted them face to face?" Detective Saul looked at her. "People have tried that. They've gone over there and started poking about in the city's underbelly. "And?" "Like I said, they usually end up floating in Lagos Lagoon." "But what if - what if you made them come to you, pretended to be an investor, say? Turned the tables." "That's a dangerous game. You'd be on their turf." "But couldn't you meet them on neutral ground? An embassy or something." "Odds are, even if you made it out alive, you wouldn't get your money back," said Rhodes. "What if," Laura said, "it wasn't about the money?" [p.139]
Learning about 419 and its effect on the victims - whom the Nigerians see as merely greedy and so not people to feel sorry for - was naturally fascinating. As was learning about the state of Nigeria's oil industry, which is plain frightening. I read this book for a book club and one of the other readers brought along a slideshow of images from the Niger Delta, of the water slick with spilled oil, the natural gas flares, burning off the gas that would normally be collected. As Ferguson describes in the novel, these fires create acid rain and the people's skin burns. Their food source is gone, and they have resorted to sabotage and guerilla warfare: opening up the pipes to siphon off the oil to sell on the black market; kidnapping foreign (white) workers and holding them to ransom; terrorising their own people on the rivers and in villages. When their own people aren't attacking them, the government sends in soldiers to kill them, burn their villages, take anything left. It's amazing the Igbo have survived at all.
One of the boys was wavering on his feet. His eyes were milky and unfocused. It reminded Nnamdi of the glassy gaze of the Egbesu boys, but without the bravado or the gin. "The hardest part is protecting your line from other boys. We have to stand guard twenty-four hours. Take turns, work it in shifts. But dey fumes is always leaking, from the hose or from the valve. So you inhale a lot of it. Gives you headaches." Nnamdi looked at his sickly friends, grown wan and thin. "You have to stop," he said. "The gas will make you ill. It will poison you." "It already has, Nnamdi." And then, in Ijaw: "It was our bad fortune, wasn't it, Nnamdi? To sit on top of wealth that others wanted. Why do you think the gods punished us like that? Cursed us with oil. Why?" "I don't know." "Do you suppose the oil is tainted by the souls of the Igbo and others that we captured? Do you suppose it's the blood of those, come back to haunt us?" "If that was the case, my friend, the oil would make the oyibos [white men] ill as well." "I think it has, Nnamdi." [pp.289-290]
Nnamdi's people, the Ijaw, was the tribe who used to capture people from other tribes, take them to the coast and sell them to the white slavers. So in Nigeria, they're not particularly well-loved, and the government views their protests against the oil industry as a kind of anti-Nigerian act of terrorism. Reading Nnamdi's story, it pretty much breaks your heart, watching along with him as the precious mangrove swamps - mangroves being one of those instrumental vegetation needed to filter CO2 from the air - are annihilated, the water poisoned, the fish and animals obliterated. So much waste - it's unbelievable. Anywhere else, the industry is fairly well regulated, but in Nigeria, either no one cares or it's simply too dangerous - the locals have made sure that any attempts to repair pipelines, for instance, are a death mission.
That's another aspect touched upon in 419: colonialism and inter-tribal conflict. There are running jokes about the different tribes, of which there are many, who, like everywhere in Africa, now find themselves lumped together in one country thanks to the borders drawn by European colonists.
What was Nigeria? It was a net, loosely thrown, a name on a map, one created by the British to paper over the gaping cracks in the joinery. A conjurer's trick, where the many became one, a sleight of hand, like the tired magic of old men making coins disappear. "There is no Nigeria." This was the lesson [Amina's] uncle had wished to impart. "There is Fulani and Hausa, Igbo and Tiv, Efik and Kanuri, Gwari and Yoruba. But Nigeria? That is on the pail we carry these in." But she knew better. She knew that the naming of a place helped bring it into existence. The naming of a location - or a person, a child - was a way of claiming them. Until you named something, it wasn't fully real. The trick to staying invisible, then, was to remain nameless. Without a name, you couldn't be pinned in place, couldn't be cornered or captured. [p.82]
The unnamed woman from the Sahel, who calls herself Amina, is decidedly foreign, alien, yet sympathetic - especially woman-to-woman. We never learn the real reason why she's fleeing her tribal land, her village, her people - the way she talks about them gives me the idea she still has pride in who she is and where she's from, but something happened to drive her out, most likely linked to her pregnancy. I found that not knowing increased the mystery of her, and kept you wary, but also made you proud of her too. In the end, it didn't matter that we don't learn the truth, it becomes irrelevant. Nnamdi is a hugely likeable character. Unlike many others that fill the background of the story, he is loyal, trustworthy, respectful, intelligent and full of life and even laughter. He is only about eighteen years old, and the fact that he was the most sympathetic character of all of them makes his story the hardest to read about.
The weak link is Laura, though part of this is deliberate on Ferguson's part and the rest is a let-down in what was strong storytelling up to the end. Laura comes from a different world, and when she arrives in Nigeria she represents the quintessential white colonist, caught up in her own objective, her own wishes, with zero empathy or any wish to understand the people she encounters. She blunders in in typical white-foreigner fashion, making things so much worse, and effectively kills one character. While I could see her side of it and understand her actions, because I had got to know the other characters and their world a bit, I found her abhorrent and unsympathetic. It just goes to show what knowledge and education can do to your perspective, in opening your mind. The question then becomes, Just who is the real victim? There are many ways to be a victim, and it's never black-and-white like you wish it was, like Laura makes it out to be.
The trouble is that Laura's not a very convincing character. Interestingly enough, Ferguson did a much better job at capturing the Nigerians, than he did his own countrywoman. It's hard to really understand her, because she's so withdrawn and lives like a hermit. I would have respected her but that, after making her point, she then demands the money - when all this time she's claimed it wasn't about the money. I don't know whether to think that in the heat of the moment, she lashed out to hurt more deeply, or whether, deep down, it really is about the money, always. Food for thought.
The novel is full of parallels, between the oil pumping like hot blood through the Niger Delta contrasted with the wealth of industry and progress in Laura's city, to the parallel between the description of a man having a tyre put around his chest and arms, doused in petrol and set alight, to the detective investigating a scene near Laura's apartment building in which a homeless man has been set alight: these juxtapositions show both the interconnectedness of the world (the fact that what's happening in one country - that we all like to frown upon - often benefits our own - like China's emissions, largely created by the demand for cheap products consumed by us), as well as showing that the cruelty seen in one country, like Nigeria, is not confined to it - that we can be cruel and violent and heartless, too. A lot of the time, these parallels were a bit obvious, a bit heavy-handed, but I still appreciated their presence.
As a story, 419 is an impressive work, richly layered, complex, nuances and empathetic, fleshing out a country that's easy to demonise and isolate as its own downfall. As the winner of Canada's most prestigious literary award, I'm not so sure. This is solid fiction, but not what I would expect of the Giller Prize. It has some absolutely lovely prose, some beautiful - if harrowing - descriptions, and speaks to the condition of humanity and the human heart with touching honesty and wry humour. It is a story I definitely recommend, one that shows great sensitivity towards another culture and people and tells their story with much respect. It was a better story, overall, than Spanish Fly. But I don't think I would have picked it for a Giller winner.(less)
Brilliantly bringing together two stories of travel, adventure and family secrets that bring our heroine and her ancestor to the South Pacific Islands...moreBrilliantly bringing together two stories of travel, adventure and family secrets that bring our heroine and her ancestor to the South Pacific Islands, Ronald Wright delivers a truly believable tale told in two distinct voices that will hold your interest right to the end.
Olivia's world has narrowed to the inside of the Arue Women's Prison on the South Pacific island of Tahiti. It is 1990, and her search for her father, a pilot who went missing in action during the Korean War, has brought her here, to a place she believes he travelled to after deserting, but her voyage led to the discovery of a drowned girl in the ocean and now she and the three people who were on the yacht with her are being held under suspicion of murder.
Olivia spends her time working on a long letter to her daughter and only child, a woman she's never met as she gave her up for adoption when she had her as a teenager. This unknown daughter has finally reached out to Olivia, who replies by telling her everything: about her childhood and how she came to have a baby so young, about the girl's father, about her father's disappearance and her mother's certainty that he would return. And she includes transcribed pages from the secret diary of a long-gone relative, Frank Henderson.
Henderson was not a direct ancestor - his only child died during the second world war - but he was an uncle of sorts and Olivia's family lived in his house, which still displays random objects from the previous century and Henderson's travels. Above the fireplace mantel was a ceremonial spear, the length of two men, made from a single piece of polished wood. Olivia and her sister Lottie grew up being told by their mother that Frank Henderson had acquired it in Africa, during a disastrous military mission that lost him an eye. But when, after their mother's death, Olivia uncovers Henderson's papers, she learns the true story of the spear, and what happened when Henderson was a young lieutenant on a royal naval ship along with two grandsons of Queen Victoria, sailing through the South Pacific.
Henderson's account and Olivia's own story converge to an enlightening truth that will link them together in a new and surprising way.
I'd never read anything by Ronald Wright before and I didn't quite know what to expect, but even had I known what a great writer he was I still would have been deeply impressed by this book. The character of Frank Henderson was actually modelled on Wright's own ancestor, a cousin, of the same name, especially his account of being captured by the Sofas in 1897, but the rest is all fiction. [Edit: Actually I have read one of his books before, how could I have forgotten? It was What is America? A Short History of the New World Order and it was AWESOME!]
The chapters that Henderson wrote in the late 1890s, as a kind of security against his suspicion that someone might seek to make him "disappear" for what he knows about the queen's grandson and heir, were told in Henderson's distinct voice, noticeably different from Olivia's and with the inflections and phrasing familiar to the period in which he lived, and yet they never jarred with Olivia's. Somehow Wright achieved that most sought-after skill: creating two clear, strong voices, one female the other male, speaking from two different time periods, which manage to complement and work together rather than butting heads or alienating the reader. It was one of the elements of the novel that most impressed me.
Olivia is not a woman I have much in common with, and yet I found her sympathetic, interesting, and I cared about her greatly. She grew up in England, always aware of how drastically different to her beautiful older sister, Lottie, she looked, and suffering from a bit of a complex because of it. Which may go part way to explaining how she was seduced by an older man. Later she moved to Canada and worked in Montreal's film industry, then relocated to Vancouver where she now lives and directs documentaries. This is how she meets a professor from the university, a married older man whom she has an affair with. She tells all this to her daughter, whom she's never met. Her need to find out what happened to her father was entirely believable and understandable, and the mystery - never overplayed - becomes more and more interesting the farther you get into the story.
Olivia and Henderson are two very different people, and their stories are not told in chronological order, but you won't have any difficulty in keeping track. Henderson recounts first his more recent mission to Africa, in which he was captured by the Sofas and was only saved from being killed by them in front of their leader by falling asleep; and then he goes back farther in time to the HMS Bacchante, which sailed with the royal navy from 1879 to 1882 with the two princes on board. The ships tour the eastern coastline of South America and South Africa, then eventually make their way to the South Pacific Islands, where the heart of the matter lies. All three stories - Henderson's, Olivia's father's, and Olivia's own - converge there, and connect.
The islands of Tahiti and its neighbours are brought vividly to life in these pages, and you learn a lot about the tribes that in habit them as well. The contrast between Olivia's more contemporary trip (1990 is not that long ago!) and Henderson's 19th century one is clearly apparent. Tahiti does not come across as an island paradise in Olivia's account; instead it seems an unfriendly place where everyone bemoans how much it's changed in the last twenty years - something they say every year. Olivia's troubles with the authorities there rob the islands of their appearance of relaxation and peacefulness, of well-off white people indulging themselves at the expense of the locals. This is not that place. But even in Henderson's account, these islands are dangerous territories (this is complemented by another book I read after this one, John Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty). Politics and an on-going colonialism play a big part, and both Henderson and Olivia shed light, in different ways, on conditions there - Henderson recounts something that a Mr Thurston, a kind of translator for the king of Fiji, says to them:
"Justice for the Fijians is of greater consequence than cotton growing. Or even empire building." He shot a fraught look at [princes] Eddy and George. "I hope Mother England will remember that. God help us if she doesn't. The Fijian is the finest friend you can ever make - and the fiercest, most tenacious foe. You don't want another New Zealand on your hands. Ten million pounds wasted in campaigns, hundreds of settlers slaughtered, half the Maori race destroyed, and no hope of lasting peace except by destroying the rest. Or, at the eleventh hour, admitting them to government. Which is what they should have done from the start." [p.250]
Seeing the passage of time wrought on the islands brings them into stark relief; as Olivia observes:
This high wilderness had been a no man's land in ancient times, avoided by the Marquesan tribes except when they swarmed up here to make war in clearings strewn with bones and broken weapons. Again it struck me how Balkanized these islands had become, as if the history of whole continents had had to be repeated here in miniature. The people might know themselves to be descended from a single fleet, yet still they divided and fought - as in human enmity must always fill the space allowed it, whether an island or a world. [pp.318-9]
The Bacchante also travels to the colony of Australia, first, to Melbourne and Hobart. I loved reading the small part about hunting Tasmanian Tigers in Tasmania [pages 198-201] - so close upon the heels of reading Into That Forest by Louis Nowra, too - because it's where I'm from and really brought the story "home" so to speak. The other thing I'll note, for myself more than anything, is how Olivia's discussions with her professor, whom she refers to as "Bob", about the classic novel Moby Dick, makes me want to read that book for the first time in my life. I've never felt any interest in reading Melville's epic tome before, but Bob has made it sound so interesting!
Wright's story is cleverly structured, thoughtfully and skilfully told, and quite beautiful to read. It did not feel like I was reading a novel; rather, Olivia could have been someone I learned about in a well-made Canadian documentary (and seriously, Canada excels at documentary film-making), Henderson a person who comes to life within the pages of a true memoir. Yet none of this realism takes away from the tension and thrill of discovery as the pieces come together. Weaving together the secrets of both family and state, this story of love, loss, and the mistakes we make - and their consequences - is highly readable, beautifully told and deeply moving.(less)