Oil on Water by Helon Habila

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Oil on Water by Helon Habila
Buy Oil on Water from Amazon.co.uk

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Genre: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This novel's central theme is the kidnapping of a British woman by Nigerian 'militants.' Rookie reporter Rufus appears to have the scoop of his life -but can he handle it?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241144862

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The book opens with two local journalists on a rather dangerous trip. Zaq, old-timer and cynic but still has the skills to seek out a good story and apprentice Rufus. A British oil engineer's wife has gone missing, believed kidnapped and the two journalists are following her trail. Zaq comes across as an interesting character; all-seeing, all-knowing albeit likes a drink or two. He's happy to impart years of knowledge to Rufus and tells him that ... the story is not always the final goal. What's really important, what the readers want to know and what sells newspapers is ... the meaning of the story.

As this conversation takes place between the two men, they are being escorted on a river trip. There are far too many dead birds, insects, animals and fish in and around this toxic swampy terrain. And the culprit? Oil. This oil is both an initial piece of good luck but then turns out to be the ultimate curse as the locals try to scrape a living in this part of Nigeria. Now, nothing grows. Habila, himself a Nigerian, describes a sad and sorrowful scene to the reader. The local people are poor and under-nourished, always looking over their shoulder (violence seems to be ever-present now) and their once rich soil is seeping black, dirty oil. And as I was reading this particular part of the book, BP's current oil difficulty was uppermost in my mind.

Zaq is under the impression that the British woman will be freed eventually. Once a substantial ransom is paid, of course. He wants to interview her after the event. It should make for excellent headlines. The characters we meet in this book are down-trodden, hungry, deflated and wonder what the future holds for them and their families. As the much younger and fitter Rufus travels back and forth between various parts of the river and his office in town, we see poverty and despair almost everywhere.

Habila gives us Rufus' background. We find out that he fell into journalism. But, as each day passes, he's becoming more and more involved in the process. He quite likes it at times. And between Zaq and Rufus they're quite a formidable team. Rufus is the arms and legs, if you like and Zaq is the brains of the operation. Seems to be working. But on this particular case with the British woman they are making slow and painful progress.

Habila gives the reader lots of little snippets about journalism. How the local team operates, how they get hold of a story, try to placate a demanding boss, that sort of thing. Interesting to a point. I found that Habila's strength lay not really in his style (which is straightforward) but in helping the reader conjure up these images - very relevant today - of big company greed, land torn apart and the little man suffering. And in reading between the lines I sensed the tragedy of the whole situation for the indigenous people. As if all that wasn't enough, we are given several instances of violence and Habila does not spare the details.

Although this is a slim volume written in non-sensational prose, I certainly had no problem grasping the message of this book. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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