419 by Will Ferguson


The title 419 is the number of the statute in the Nigerian legal code that refers to obtaining money through fraud. We've all seen email from those who are undeterred by that statute. The book opens on the aftermath of the suicide of a retired school teacher in Calgary facing the loss of all his money and the house where he and his wife lived. His wife and two grown children learn what happened to him bit by bit.

Early on in the book the daughter Laura lands in Nigeria. That plotline is interrupted for the development of several Nigerian characters. First is the university graduate Winston who spends his day at a computer screen searching for "mugus" or "marks"; it is Winston who scammed Laura's father. We learn of his troubles, success, then the terror of coming to the attention of the "faddah guyman," godfather of the scammers. Then we hear about a pregnant woman walking south to escape some unknown situation. We never learn much about her background beyond understanding that she has great determination and will, and eventually that her name is Amina. 

And we meet Nnamdi as a bright boy with a wonderful smile and through him we experience the ruination of the Niger Delta region that followed the discovery of oil through ecological devastation, then war. Through Nnamdi we hear much about the beliefs that explain why one has good fortune and another does not: his father explains about good and evil:

"No agreement with Wonyinghi ever includes evil," Nnamdi's father said as he wound in the last of the netting. "We are born good, we choose evil. Life forces these decisions upon us." and it often came down to that elemental struggle between buro-you and diriguo-keme, beween diviners and sorcery. "The trick," said Nnamdi's father, "is to know the difference."

We spend much time with Nnamdi as he is trained by the Shell men, civil society in the Delta ends, he has an adventurous ride in an oil truck going north to sell blackmarket oil, and he meets Amina. Then comes the connections among all these disparate strands and of course credulity is strained and some things go well and others terribly wrong.

I found the writing to be illuminating and riveting in some parts while it drags in others; when Laura the copyeditor was present, things moved along at a good clip. The background required to bring life to the Nigerians, especially the shadowy Amina, was hard going. Nnamdi's life story was wonderfully told and I found the disintegration of life in the Niger Delta particularly heart-wrenching. I admired Ferguson's ambition and believe he was largely successful.

419 won the 2012 Giller Prize, a $50,000 prize for the best Canadian novel or short story collection written in English. Ferguson has also written humor and travel guides. I became aware of this book because KevinfromCanada hosts a Shadow Giller Prize Jury which has operated for 19 of the 20 years of the Giller Prize itself. Another book I liked very much, The Imposter Bride, was shortlisted for that same prize last year.

Will Ferguson, 419, Pintail, 2013, 432 pages (I read the Kindle version).

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