419. Will Ferguson.

Ferguson, Will. 419.  Penguin, Toronto. 2012. F;11/13.

I’m a bit surprised at the Giller Prize victory of this international crime thriller. The author comes close but still for me doesn’t accomplish the very difficult task (also attempted by Louise Penny and (more unwittingly) by Michael Thomas) of writing a formula-genre story that is also something truly beautiful to behold.

The subject matter and plot are gripping, “419” referring to a Nigerian law prohibiting online scams, and the story beginning with the suicide of an elderly Canadian man who is the victim of one. His daughter sets out to revenge his being defrauded and his death, and eventually the two apparently unrelated plot elements developed in Canada and Nigeria collide in a complex multiple-switchback dénouement.

Yes, there is a lesson somewhere in the middle of all of it. The credulousness of the poor old man asks a wee bit too much of the same from us, but if you’ve ever received one of those obviously fake e-mails from Africa asking for help and money there is some realistic close-to-home impact and you’ll probably handle the next one with your best electronic security.

In the unlikely event that anybody ever read more than a few of these book reviews of mine, I’m sure I would be dismissed as an unqualified badmouth who thinks nobody knows how to write. Except me. Fair enough, and I more than realize that my English lit was a long long time ago, and composition probably somewhere around a sophomore level.

Still. A bit like the way an entrée in a good restaurant arrives when you’re hungry and so always seems better than the main, I was dazzled by the early descriptive and figurative writing, but wasn’t so thrilled when it started to bog down in melodrama after 80 pages or so: “Memories wavered in the heat. The past had become a mirage and the sun-warmed clay of her village was fading now with every step, with every gust of wind.” Mr. Ferguson must have been to Nigeria to be able to describe Lagos as convincingly as he does, but he doesn’t convey the terrible poverty and hopelessness the poor pregnant girl was experiencing. Expecting that would be a pretty tall order, and we remind ourselves this is a thriller and put up not unhappily with a little almost-ironic plastic-machee writing, and failure to conceal lack of verisimilitude with some aesthetic-metaphysical sleight-of-hand, getting us through the rough patches.

The rough patches can be extensive. All that African religion and folklore when we just want to get on with the intrigue and revenge. If I’m a literary teenager with no impulse control and the Giller jury saw something wonderful that I’ll never be able to appreciate I apologize. But there it is.

Following along the same lines as the author’s being unable to identify with Nigerians I don’t find much realistic early-intimacy tension in the main romantic relationship between Nnamdi and Amina. And there is a confirming deficiency on the other side of the pond to do with the police officer’s peeping-tom interest in our plucky lady protagonist, which gets finessed offhandedly as though a bit of furtive prurience is all we need in that department, not to be distracted from the plot we’re primarily interested in. Fair enough..

But don’t despair. There are quite exciting fireworks in the plot windup, and the characters are fully three-dimensional and oozing with moral ambiguity. It is a great read. Just not quite, for this TV series addict, Giller first-prize material. 8.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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