419: A gripping exploration of economic inequality (without it feeling like a book about economic inequality)

I continued my summer of reading literary thrillers with Will Fergusen’s 419. I was late to the party on this one, with folks suggesting I read it for years. Something about it made me resistant to reading, and it wasn’t until it was the *only* book to have come in to the library from my list of requests that I gave in and picked it up. That 419 is terrific only (once again) proves that I am ridiculous for following my arbitrary whims when it comes to book covers and gut feelings.

It follows a sort of three part structure with three distinct characters and plots that (eventually and inevitably) insercet. All story lines are tied to the Nigerian economy. The effect of having the three distinct threads is to demonstrate in character and plot the complexity of the titular 419 scheme. I say complexity and mean both in how such a scheme is set up and executed, but also – and more importantly – the moral ambiguity of the scheme as the reader comes to appreciate the motivations of those setting up the scheme, just as we come to sympathize with those who fall victim to it. It is in this complexity that 419 does its best work – demanding that the reader simulatenously occupy multiple points of sympathy, and rendering all positions around the issue as at once explotited and powerful.

There were a few parts in the initial descriptions of the Nigerian oil economy that I found dragged; likewise in the initial scenes of desert crossing. I suspect this had as much to do with the contrast between these opening scenes and the opening scenes in Calgary, which are plot heavy and familiar as it did with the return to an emphasis on setting and mood as opposed to plot. I also found the characterization of Lauren a bit thinly drawn: her moodiness and loneliness felt declarative rather than earned, and I was annoyed with her more often than I ought to have been when the aim was to cultivate my sympathies.

Putting these minor complaints aside, the novel offers an (at times) gripping exploration of global economic inequalities without it feeling like you’re reading a book about global economic inequality (always a plus). And it has a snappy little mystery to hook you in, so if you’re at all resistant (as I was), give it the first 30 pages and you’ll be snagged.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Giller prize, Prize Winner, Uncategorized

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