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419
by Will Ferguson
Viking Canada, March 2012
416 pages
$32.00 CAD
ISBN: 0670064718


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Laura Curtis is a copy editor in Calgary, Alberta, who lives in a high-rise that sits atop a shopping mall and which affords her a view of much of the city. She has neither need nor desire to enter into city life, however. She works from home and the mall supplies her daily needs. She can feast off the fast-food versions of Thai, Mexican, Chinese, or Italian cuisine merely by taking the elevator down eleven floors. But when her father is found dead off the highway, the victim not of an accident, but a suicide, she finds herself catapulted into a much, much larger world.

Her father apparently has killed himself from shame, having lost all of the family savings, the house, and everything of value as a result of a Nigerian email scam, the sort that begins, "Dear Sir, You do not know me but...." When the police assure Laura and her brother that there is absolutely no way to recover the losses, her brother satisfies himself by attempting long-range internet revenge on the scammers but Laura determines to go to Nigeria, hunt down the actual culprit, and achieve restitution. The title, 419, refers to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that describes the various forms of fraud and swindle that are components of the internet scam that Laura is determined to confront in person.

Her African adventure occupies only the last one hundred pages of the book, however, as Ferguson is interested not just in the scam and how it works (though he explicates that beautifully), but the context in which it exists. Much of the centre of the book describes the life and adventures of a young man with a beautiful smile and a good heart, Nnamdi, from the Niger Delta, as he is forced to leave home and find his way as best he can, finally signing on to a dangerous trek across the breadth of the country to deliver a truckload of oil. Along the way, he takes Amina, a terrified and pregnant young woman from the Sahel, under his wing.

Will Ferguson began his career as an award-winning travel writer and his description of their epic journey is testimony to his talents in that department. (He has also won a awards as a comic novelist, but humour is in short supply in this rather grim story.) For the most part, the author introduces the necessary historical, political, and social background information tactfully, without overloading the narrative with indigestible lumps of factoids.

A look at the first reviews of 419 reveals a decided disappointment among some critics at seeing Ferguson leave the comic novel behind to go off in what they appeared to think was a rather dubious direction - the thriller. And then Ferguson confounded all expectations last month by winning Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize, certainly the first book that could be called a thriller ever to do so. Even the jury itself seemed a bit startled as it pronounced that Ferguson's novel "transcended the genre," (apparently by being a very good book). It doesn't. It is a very good book, but it is also a thriller, one that does what every really good thriller does - engage, entertain, and provoke reflection. And it is well worth any reader's time and attention.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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