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Oil on Water

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In Habila’s stirring third novel (after Measuring Time), a pair of Nigerian reporters are dispatched to find the kidnapped wife of a British oil executive. Young Rufus and his disgraced mentor, Zaq, track the wife’s captors—guerrilla forces fighting against the petroleum industry and its government allies—through the lush Nigerian delta, wandering along oil-slicked rivers, villages destroyed by war, and communities evicted by a land-hungry oil company. Rufus, whose own family has been shattered by the oil industry’s machinations, bears witness to pointless cruelties inflicted by both sides of the conflict and the suffering of a population uprooted and set adrift on a desecrated landscape. The novel is a cinematic adventure and a remarkably tense race against the clock set in a haunting world of mangroves, floating villages, and jungle shrines—but it is also a brooding political tragedy in the Graham Greene tradition, one that illustrates the environmental and human costs of resource extraction in corrupt, postcolonial Africa. The delta and its people are rendered with insight and sensitivity, but also an unsparing sense of irony; indeed, it’s a credit to Habila’s storytelling that his mournful vision of the world never eclipses its fragile beauty, or its humanity.


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