419 by Will Ferguson is this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner, so I thought I would read it to see the calibre of writing worthy of winning the Giller Prize. I wasn’t disappointed.
419 refers to Nigerian email scams. We’ve all received those emails requesting monetary assistance with the promise of a windfall in return. 419 explores the depths of what might happen when one responds to the emails and gets caught up in the web of deceit, fraud, and blackmail perpetrated by the scam baiters. In 419, a man commits suicide after losing his life savings, including the house. His daughter decides to avenge her father’s death and winds up being scammed herself.
The novel follows four storylines: Laura, the daughter of the man who has committed suicide; Winston, the perpetrator of the crime; Amina, a young, pregnant Nigerian girl; and Nnamdi, the young boy who falls for Amina, assumes responsibility for her child, and winds up being killed when he, too, is swept up in the business of 419. Laura and her family’s story is interesting, as is Winston’s and his involvement and cavalier attitude toward the 419 frauds he perpetrates. To him, people like Laura’s dad are rich, stupid Americans, ripe for the picking by anyone with the smarts to outwit them. Nnamdi’s story becomes interesting, too, but only after he joins Ironsi Egobia’s team of thugs and is tasked with getting rid of Laura after she becomes a thorn in his side. But the stories of Laura, Winston and Nnamdi’s demise are parenthesis to a confused middle story which sees the introduction of Amina and Nnamdi with no indication of how they fit into the grand scheme of the story.
I read about half of the novel in one sitting, unable to put down the discovery of Laura’s father’s demise, the family’s reaction, and the police detective who flirts with Laura. I continued reading as I learned the ins and outs of the 419 scams. The reader is gradually introduced to both Amina and Nnamdi as their chapters alternate with Laura’s and Winston’s which are all but lost as Amina and Nnamdi take the forefront. I found it difficult to keep reading after fifty or so pages after that and almost put the novel down because I could not see how the new characters fit in with the old. Trusting that Ferguson wouldn’t leave his readers hanging, I pressed on, and I wasn’t disappointed. Once the stories met up, the book morphed back into a page-turner and the end was worth the wait.
As with many books I’ve read, Ferguson is rewarded with The Giller Prize for doing something others have slapped my wrist for doing—introducing characters with no immediate connection to the story with which the novel was begun. The fact that Ferguson has enjoyed such acclaim with this structure renews my hope that there is nothing wrong with the stories I’ve been writing, and that, with persistence, I may find a publishing house yet.