Will Ferguson, successful humorist and travel writer, joins the ranks of literary novelists with 419 after winning the coveted ScotiaBank Giller Prize. The accolades and the title were the hook that steered my reader senses deep into a labyrinth of revenge, lies and deception, in a riveting story spanning two continents.
The novel entices us with four storylines layered purposefully in fragmented chapters -- seemingly connected but not obviously intertwined. The narrative’s opening scene sets the stage: a car-crash with a retired Calgary school teacher, Henry Curtis, its victim. The investigation does not immediately suspect foul play, but as new evidence surfaces, Henry Curtis’ secrets begin to unfold as a steadily moving wreck that shatters the lives of his family members. Unintentionally, his actions have left them now not only with an emotional void, but a financial chasm after they realize he has been the target of a sophisticated Internet scam referred to as “419” in Nigeria.
As Henry’s family deals with the details of his death, a trail of emails surface that link him to the con in Lagos. On the other end is Winston, an educated Nigerian who dreams of escaping to the west but trapped in a country that offers him no options. Ferguson manages to get the reader to feel empathy for this character, even though we know he is responsible for Henry Curtis’ ruin.
419 has its merits and it is evident because Will Ferguson’s experience as a travel writer come through in this novel. Having done his research, he brings to life local details that appear rudimentary yet bring the characters, deeply immersed in Nigeria’s 419 underbelly, to the fore. Add in dialogue that is perfectly on cue and the Nigeria of the con artists becomes vividly real.
Notwithstanding the book’s strengths, there are shortcomings. Most notable amongst them the unnecessarily long arc of Nnamdi, a minor character whose backstory only barely weaves in with those of the main characters.