Helon Habila’s Oil on Water is now eight years old. But it is not ageing at all. The novel has received raving reviews from The Times, The Independent, The Metro, The Financial Times, The Sunday Times, The Metro, The New York Times, among other major newspapers, and for a valid reason. Not once have we read about the turmoil in the oil producing region of Niger Delta, deep in Nigeria. But Habila literally carries us to experience life in the Delta in a way we have never done before, through two journalists Zaq and Rufus.
The journalists are following the trail of the kidnapped wife of a British oil engineer. Zaq is your quintessential journalist who has already made a name for himself through infamous writings, and already has a clue as to what he is getting himself into by being contracted to help trace the kidnapped foreigner. But Rufus is a young, inexperienced scribe who is eager to perfectly fit into the shoes of his mentor (Zaq), and does not leave to chance the opportunity of accompanying the ageing journalist on an expedition in the jungles whose atmosphere wreaks suffering, dejection, and death, not just for the journalists but the natives.
Habila’s vivid description of the lives of the natives, barely surviving amidst the deadly grip of ghostly militant campaigners on the one hand and the clasp of a corrupt and negligent multinational oil mining regime on the other hand, leaves the reader gasping. Niger Delta, the region that feeds Africa’s largest economy, is a strange land the world ‘barely’ knows about. And it is in this magnificent art of description that takes Habila a level higher than the gifted film maker.
The author’s use of a linear plot works for the book, the simple yet evocative language use the mark of the ideal Nigerian storyteller. By the end of the read, one is not sure whether to get angry or relapse into despair. This is a provocative story worth your time, which you will read without any effort.
Review by Hillary Namunyu
About the book
Title: Oil on Water
Author: Helon Habila
Price range: KES 1225
Available at: Magunga Bookstore
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