September 6, 2010 7:02 am

Oil on Water

Oil on Water, by Helon Habila, Hamish Hamilton RRP£12.99, 216 pages

 

Taking as its theme the oil war in Nigeria’s delta region, the third novel by Caine Prize-winner Helon Habila reads a little like a post-colonial riff on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When the English wife of an oil executive is kidnapped, two journalists at opposite ends of their careers are tasked with locating her. For the young narrator, Rufus, the job is a chance to impress his editor. By contrast, whisky-sodden legend Zak understands that “the story is not always the final goal”.

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And so it turns out. The pair’s quest brings them into contact with vengeful government troops, machine-gun toting militants and animistic cultists, all against the background of a society and an environment ravaged by petro-lust. The chopped-up time-scheme gives the story the air of a feverish dream, as does the way Habila subtly creates doubles for many of the characters. But most unsettling is the ending. A cause for optimism or a cry of despair? It repays close re-reading.

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