419 by Will Ferguson (M)
I recently sat in on a meeting of the Thomas Raddall Book Club at the Keshen Goodman library, and was interested to hear some of the comments that they made about Will Ferguson's recently popular novel, 419.
419 is the section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud, and in his novel, Ferguson discusses the personal significance of the widespread problem of internet scams. When Laura discovers that her recently deceased father has lost all of their family's money, and had to remortgage their house due to an internet scam, she goes on a journey to find out who did this to her family, and why. Running alongside the story of Laura and her family, is that of the Nigerians who must resort to such scams to survive. Winston, one such scammer, as well as Nnamdi, a young man from the Niger Delta, and the mysterious Amina, a pregnant woman who walks into Lagos out of sub-Saharan Africa, all show how far reaching the impact of 419 scams can be.
For most of the book club, Ferguson's work was well written, stylistically pleasing, with logical temporal shifts. They noted the way that Ferguson used repetition of themes to draw connections between characters and places. It was also important that Ferguson's novel drew attention to real-world problems, on more than one level. Not only are internet scams a reality of survival in the Nigeria, but they have consequences in the Western world as well.
Other members were less satisfied with the novel, feeling dismayed and sometimes frustrated by the novel and characters. Despite the beautiful writing, some of the book club disliked the book because it was so full of pain. The characters lived through such difficult circumstances, and in many cases, evil prevailed. Even those characters who were 'good' became corrupted by their connection with the 419 scams. Furthermore, some thought that the Western aspect of the novel was weak, because of the sheer gullibility of Laura's father, Henry. Although it does not stretch the imagination that someone could become embroiled at some level in such a scam, it seems difficult to believe that someone could get to the point of re-mortgaging their home.
I enjoyed sitting in on the meeting, because as a library employee I spend a lot of time around these prize winning novels (reading some and missing some others) but it was particularly interesting to hear how Ferguson's novel was received by patrons, some who would not have picked the book up ordinarily. I also enjoyed the opportunity to gain some different perspectives about Ferguson's book.