In this fascinating novel, two journalists travel through the lawless, toxic waters of the Niger delta on the trail of a kidnapped white woman. The narrator, Rufus, is young and desperate for his first big story, whilst his colleague Zaq is an experienced hack fallen from grace. Both are interesting characters in their own right, with their backstories revealed slowly throughout the novel. The action does jump around in time, and this is a little confusing in the earlier sections, but eventually it proves effective in telling the story. It becomes quite gripping by about a quarter of the way in, after a start I found rather slow and hard to get into. It's worth persisting with as the majority is very readable.
The writing style is clear and suitably journalistic. Habila is one of those skilled authors who can conjure a very vivid sense of atmosphere and place without being obviously descriptive in his writing. At times, this makes it an uneasy read, given the unpleasant and precarious situation of the characters. I knew very little about this area and the situation there, despite having read a lot of books set in Nigeria, and vague awareness of kidnaps happening occasionally to oil workers and their families in the country. So this book does a really good job of shining a light on something that isn't widely known by European readers and thus telling a story that is new. It manages to show both sides of the story and does not provide any easy answers. The real victims are clearly the ordinary people of the area, who end up caught in the crossfire between army and rebels, whilst their livelihoods are destroyed by the pollution and unsustainability of the oil industry.
It is one of those rare books that could easily get away with being longer. It is fearlessly edited and several sub-plots could be taken much further, and the conclusion fleshed out more. But I admire the author's bravery in deciding less is more, and not overtelling things. He makes good choices in what to include and what not to, painting a clear enough picture without spelling everything out. It's surprising how good the reader's imagination is at filling in gaps when given the chance. I felt it was a very believable story and although it tells of fairly dramatic events, it always feels completely plausible. I liked that things were never too black and white, and there is no clear 'enemy' or 'hero' in the story. Rufus, the central character, is likeable and sympathetic although always feels slightly remote. There is a sense of dissociation from the story, which I think may be partly to do with the jumping around in time of the narrative. Some of the most exciting sections were dampened down somewhat for me because I knew the rough outcome having already read sections that take place chronologically later.
Overall it is a well written and very interesting book that will appeal in particular to readers with an interest in Africa, environmental issues, or journalism. Persist through the first few chapters to find a compelling and convincing narrative that will make you think. I'd certainly read more novels by the same author, and I hope this work becomes better known in the UK - it deserves a wider readership than its number of reviews suggests at present.