Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oil on Water by Helon Habila

Oil on Water: A Novel This novel deserves all the kudos heaped upon it. The clarity of the writing, the construction of the central mystery, the steady buildup of tension, the detailed character development—all are remarkable and accomplished. The story is simple and straightforward, but becomes nail-bitingly tense as the cub reporter Rufus pursues the kidnappers of a woman on the Nigerian delta. Rufus wouldn’t have volunteered for the dangerous mission but for wishing to accompany a veteran reporter he admires, Zak.

Things go wrong. One senses the dark nights, the hot, greasy air creased with yellow torches flaming high from the oil rigs, and a maelstrom of humanity wielding guns. Oil permeates everything—the air, the water, the soil—and oil brings wealth to some and homelessness to many in Nigeria.

Rufus is both the first and last name of our narrator, a single name he adopts just like Zak, the reporter he most admired. Zak is alcoholic, broken in body and disillusioned, but he is still a raging intellect with the heart of a lion. These two men, on their journey to find the kidnapped wife of a British oil engineer, run into militants seeking adequate reimbursement for oil revenues passing them by. Soldiers seek to stymie the kidnapping plot. Rufus and Zak witness the aftermath of their battle. Rufus is a photographer first, and his experience allows him to take pictures that grip the eye.

Habila was a journalist first. He knows how to write a sentence that makes a picture. The simplicity of the writing gives us immediate access to his story: a few words show us the timbre of a voice, the stiffness of a back, the roll and gloss of an eye. On Habila's website we are treated to a blurb from celebrated British author Jim Crace who says, 'Helon Habila writes with intelligence and admirable narrative economy.' That's it, of course. There is no waste.

In addition, Habila makes all his characters vulnerable, even the oilmen, the kidnappers, and their henchmen. He takes seemingly incomprehensible events and shows them from every angle, surprising us with their simplicity and their pathos. He reveals terrifying truths and exhibits the almost endless resilience of people under unbearable pressures. He shows us humanity as depraved and as generous as we know ourselves to be.

Exquisite. Unforgettable. Praiseworthy.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

No comments:

Post a Comment