OIL ON WATER by Helon Habila


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While searching for a foreign hostage, two reporters witness the despoliation of Nigeria in Habila’s (Measuring Time, 2007, etc.) latest, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. 

The stink of oil and the orange light of gas flares emanate from this graphic account of a nation ruined by the extraction of its natural resources, in a narrative that is part political diatribe, part detective story. The quest to find Isabel Floode, the kidnapped wife of a white petroleum engineer, lures journalist Rufus and his older colleague Zaq out of Port Harcourt into the liquid landscape of the Niger delta, where beauty and subsistence have fallen victim to ecological nightmare and the violent clash between the military and the militants. Rufus is the lens through which Habila exposes the horrific landscape of poisoned wildlife and deserted villages, and the hopelessness of the people, robbed of their land, squeezed between avaricious forces. Witnessing scenes of massacre, migration and strange worship, Rufus remains unscathed even when abducted by a crazed soldier named the Major and then the rebel leader, the Professor. Finding Isabel, and also a love interest for himself, his journey ends in unconvincing optimism.

Dreamy, criss-crossed with flashbacks and pipelines, a memorable if heavily delineated parable of the dispossessed.

Pub Date: May 16th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-33964-2
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2011


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