The book first caught my attention when it was announced as the Giller Prize winner. I thought Will Ferguson’s name sounded awfully familiar, so I looked up his other books. Sure enough, I owned and had read one of his other books How To Be A Canadian. Why did this give me mental whiplash, you ask? HTBAC is a book of humor (or humour). I know Ferguson as a really funny guy and the premise of 419 didn’t sound very funny. I still wanted to give it a try.
At the outset, 419 appears to be the story of a Calgary family whose father got caught up in a phishing scheme from Nigeria and killed himself after realizing what was happening and how far in debt he had put his family. The family are a little interesting as they try to prove that their father couldn’t have done this. Wouldn’t have done this. There are some police officers who add interest. You feel like you know where this story is going.
The story gains depth and seems to lose a little control when it shifts to Nigeria. The characters have greater depth and the surroundings are much richer. You read the story of a Nigerian man who slipped into the world of the ‘419’ (scams) and yet is somehow trying to justify his moral compass. You read the story of a pregnant girl trying to walk across the country to get away from her family and have a new life for her child. You read the story of a boy living in a wilderness that is slowly invaded by the oil industry.
All the time the Nigeria story is unfolding you wonder how this fits with the Calgary story. Who did this to such an innocent father? You learn both sides of the phishing story and the breakdown of a society to the point where phishing is a major viable industry.
The daughter in Calgary decides to take matters in her own hands and exact her own revenge. The story of her travel to Nigeria to find who did this to her father takes the book in a direction that feels inauthentic, but brings the two world of the book crashing together.
I feel like I’m not doing full credit to the richness and layering of this novel. Symbolism runs throughout and themes are layered on themes.
This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Beyond just being a triumph, it shows Ferguson’s depth as a writer that he is able to move between so many different genres and produce excellent works. I’ll be haunted by this book for a while and will be watching for Ferguson’s next novel.