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Oil on Water The new generation of twenty first century African writers have now come of age Without a doubt Habila is one of the best —Emmanuel DongalaIn the oil rich and environmentally devastated Nigerian Delta the wife of a British oil executive has been kidnapped Two journalists a young upstart Rufus and a once great now disillusioned veteran Za are sent to find her In a story rich with atmosphere and taut with suspense Oil on Water explores the conflict between idealism and cynical disillusionment in a journey full of danger and unintended conseuencesAs Rufus and Za navigate polluted rivers flanked by exploded and dormant oil wells in search of the white woman they must contend with the brutality of both government soldiers and militants Assailed by irresolvable versions of the truth about the woman's disappearance dependent on the kindness of strangers of unknowable loyalties their journalistic objectivity will prove unsustainable but other values might yet salvage their human dignity Oil On Water by Helon Habila is a novel that takes in Nigeria where oil has become the main concern The oil companies are buying up villages and destroying the environment That’s when the militant group starts fighting back and one of the ways they do so is by kidnapping important people and family members of the oil company This is where Rufus and Za two reporters come in They are sent to determine a ransom for “the white woman” What appears to be a simple but frightening task turns into unexpected complicated and unwanted adventure Despite it’s slightly confusing flashbacks and double flashbacks the story keeps you reading wanting to figure out the mystery and leaves you content and fulfilled by the end Overall Oil On Water is a thrilling and uniue story 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 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 adeuate 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 know how to take pictures that grip the eyeHabila 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 beExuisite Unforgettable Praiseworthy a stunning novel one I highly recommend it to people who want to be enlightened about human and environmental conditions in other nations Maybe some people think it's not cool to be reading fiction about the damage caused by big bad corporations but really I don't care about opinions I want to know what's happening in the world Oil on Water highlights only a small portion of what's going on and what's been going on for some time but what is happening now and what's been happening in the Delta area of Nigeria for nearly 50 years is just shameful You can click here for a full on discussion or just continue reading for the abridged versionSet in the Niger Delta Oil on Water examines the changes brought about by the oil industry which drilled its first well in 1956 and has remained a permanent fixture ever since This very short but powerful novel the story seen through the eyes of a journalist named Rufus briefly brings together the stories of five different groups in the area 1 the people who live in the Delta whose traditional lands waterways and ways of life have been changed exploited and in many cases damaged beyond repair; 2 the numerous groups of freedom fightersmilitants whose operations pit them against 3 the oil companies and 4 the government soldiers who routinely patrol the area; and 5 the journalists who are invited to come and witness record and relay the truth of what's really going on in the Delta While the subject matter is disturbing on many levels Habila's writing is stunning conveying a very real sense of the human effects of the changes wrought by the oil industry thereThe frame for this novel is that the wife of an oil company executive has been kidnapped and a group of journalists have been invited to make the journey up the river for an interview with her and her captors Rufus is a new reporter at the 3rd largest paper in Port Harcourt and when the reuest to get the story comes in he volunteers for a job that all of the journalists know is potentially fatal after the earlier killings of two reporters on a similar mission Along with him is his idol Za a once great reporter now past his glory days once famous for his stories that emphasized the humanity beneath events As they make their journey upriver for the story they become part of it they are held as prisoners and encounter others who have also been taken captive; they are firsthand witnesses to murder and other violent acts and throughout their trek they experience the horrific devastation of waterways and land that used to sustain entire populations The story goes back and forth through time as Rufus relates both his past and Za's; Rufus also talks to various people they encounter along the way and hears their respective stories of how they came to be where they are at present The author spares no detail in describing the environmental devastation including the foul and sulphurous river with its floating dead and dying wildlife the fish that have disappeared the perpetually burning flares of gas that burn throughout the night and produce toxic fumes and land that is so oil soaked that nothing can grow But he also focuses heavily on the human side of things Government corruption is a reality that sustains poverty and poverty engenders groups like the militantsfreedom fighters who disrupt oil production until they're paid off kidnap for huge ransoms and are in a state of perpetual warfare with government soldiers that involves the lives of otherwise innocent people Tapping oil lines just to survive sometimes with disastrous results according to the author is another human conseuence as is the move to bigger cities where work is hard or nearly impossible to come by Oil and Water is a depressing novel but at the same time the story is very well written giving the reader pause to think If you're saying in your head oh crap not another story about the evil oil corporations well yes there is definitely a LOT of that here At its core however this is an all too human story based on realities that most people reading this book including myself can't even begin to fathom It brings to light an ongoing state of environmental devastation and human rights issues that most people either aren't aware of and well frankly probably don't care about because it's somewhere over in Africa and isn't relevant to daily living And that's really a shame I loved this novel and all I can say by way of recommendation is READ THIS BOOK Rufus a young journalist on his first major assignment travels into the troubled oil rich Nigerian Delta hoping to land his breakthrough news story interviewing the kidnappers of a British oil engineer's wife and proving that the captive is alive The dangers lurking among the oilfields and the pipelines that meander snake like across the Delta's waters cannot deter him especially as he is in the company of his much admired former mentor the erstwhile prominent reporter Za Helon Habila's new novel Oil on Water is a confidently crafted and absorbing in parts totally gripping chronicle of human ambitions tragedies and failures but also of love friendship and perseverance of the human spirit Evoking the rich and beautiful yet fragile environment of the Delta that is slowly being devastated by the greed for oil and money Habila perceptively guides his different narrative strands into a poignant story that is profoundly personal even where he raises broader political and societal concernsHabila weaves his story in a non chronological way it flows back and forth in time reflecting the reporters' meandering voyage through the vast intricate river delta We first meet Rufus and Za on the ninth day of their uest In flashbacks we learn about their back stories and over time that of other memorable characters Past events are hinted at early on Now they are on their own traveling by slow canoe dependent for guidance and safety on a local fisherman and his young son to find a safe place to stay while charting their next steps However their time among the mangroves and later on a very special island of worshippers is suddenly interrupted and they have to leave their journalist role behind and use all their talents to stay aliveObserving events through Rufus's eyes and mind the author takes us behind the news headlines and deep into the complicated uagmire of the violent conflict between the opposing sides and their claims for oil land and control Emotions run high suspicions and fear are constant companions Not only are deadly accidents common from fires and illegally tapped oil pipes the local military units tasked with protecting the oil business's interests are known for excessive vicious force when confronted by any type of resistance passive or not The militant rebels also have a reputation of violence and kidnapping as a means to raise the money for their ongoing struggle against the government authorities and the oil companies The local population of fishermen and farmers with memories of a simpler and healthier life and happier times are caught in the middle but also tempted by promised riches from the oil wells on their shoresHabila is an accomplished storyteller as well as a poet having won numerous awards in both fields His imagery is vivid at times cinematographic and his lyrical language comes to the fore in particular when he connects the reader with the atmospheric seascapes of the Delta Midriver the water was clear and mobile but toward the banks it turned brackish and still trapped by mangroves in whose branches the mist hung in clumps like cotton balls Ahead of us the mist arched clear over the water like a bridge our light wooden canoe would be so enveloped in the dense gray stuff that we couldn't see each other as we glided silently over the waterDespite the oftentimes violent events that Habila describes he softens their impact with his sensitive characterization of people who rarely are totally evil or totally good they are human beings A less rounded and skilled storyteller could have succumbed to the dangers of taking on a didactic preaching tone Not so While Habila has definite deep concerns on his mind he never allows these to take over or skew the balance in this richly imagined story of complex human beings in a many sided challenging situation To me the late writer and journalist Ken Saro Wiva the human rights activist and until his execution in 1995 foremost non violent defender of the rights of the indigenous Delta populations comes to mind as a likely and strong inspiration for the author

  • Paperback
  • 239 pages
  • Oil on Water
  • Helon Habila
  • English
  • 04 June 2014
  • 9780393339642

About the Author: Helon Habila

Helon Habila was born in Nigeria in 1967 He studied literature at the University of Jos and taught at the Federal Polytechnic Bauchi before moving to Lagos to work as a journalist In Lagos he wrote his first novel Waiting for an Angel which won the Caine Prize in 2001 Waiting for an Angel has been translated into many languages including Dutch Italian Swedish and FrenchIn 2002 he moved


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