The brutal mechanics of our lust for oil, as Hollywood thrillers from The Pelican Brief to Syriana prove, lend themselves to tales of heroic underdogs unmasking the machinations of big petrobusiness. Helon Habila's new novel turns these certainties on their head. Oil on Water follows two journalists – keen, young Rufus and ageing, cynical Zaq – as they pursue the kidnapped European wife of an oil executive into the badlands of the Niger delta. But "the story is not always the final goal", Zaq tells Rufus at the beginning of their Conradian journey upriver, and their quest for the truth soon turns into something more complex.
As they struggle up the river in a canoe, guided by an old man and a young boy, the reporters encounter nightmarish scenes of devastation: "dead birds draped over tree branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fishes bobbed white-bellied between tree roots". By the flickering light of oil flares, they find some villages abandoned, their fields and water contaminated; others scrape a miserable existence on the frontline of a civil war between the army and anti-government guerrillas.
Oil on Water lays bare the real-life tragedy of the Niger delta, in which petrodollars warp human relationships as surely as leaking crude poisons birds and fish. A village that accepts an oil company payout, Rufus discovers, is initially jubilant. TVs and f ... Read Full Review