Sometimes when I read books, I am delighted to find that an author has captured in words small experiences, feelings, quirks, or occasions in ways I never expected to see in print. If they're really good, like Proust or Alice Munro, they capture experiences I never consciously thought about, but deeply recognize.
Other times, books make the alien understandable. People who react in ways utterly unlike the ways I think I would in similar circumstances, and I understand why they did, because the author teaches me to see through their eyes. In these ways, books do what I strive to do when I teach - make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.
And then, unfortunately, there are the books where, every few pages, I audibly scoff and lower the book and wonder why the hell a character just did what they did. Their actions seem very strange to me, and the author is not bothering to explain why they are making them. They seem entirely arbitrary and as much as I try to give the author the benefit of the doubt, I become increasingly unsure that this is a deliberate look at the alien, and isn't instead just sloppy writing.
That, unfortunately, is what happened here. My husband started to be able to tell from the next room when I was reading this book (as opposed to one of the other two I had on the go) from the little noises of disbelief that kept floating in the air. I'd tell him what just happened, and he'd stare at me like I had rocks in my head. Well, at the author, but I was the intermediary.
It's particularly bad in the Canadian scenes. Maybe the African scenes would ring just as hollow for people who know that setting better, or maybe it's that the Nigerian story was what he really wanted to write and tacked on a Canadian subplot to make it attractive to publishers. But the Canadians? Man. I cannot tell you how many times I almost shouted at them, wondering why they were doing what they were doing. It isn't that they were doing things I wouldn't do. It was that the author didn't bother to explain to me why they were doing these things.
"It's not about the money?" Then what is it about? And why, then, is the money all that character goes after? Why are the police giving entirely bogus information on bankruptcy proceedings, and who they would charge with fraud. (I have a source. The book was irritating me so badly I checked with my bankruptcy source. He tells me that what the cops said would happen was extremely unlikely, to say the least. That it sounds like it came from a brief perusal of the bankruptcy act, but without any understanding of how that act is actually applied.)
Laura's father has fallen prey to a Nigerian scam. Which, as far as the book is concerned, all actually emanate from Nigeria. The idea that someone might be just saying they were from Nigeria while actually being from somewhere else never seems to cross anyone's mind, because scammers can be relied upon to be totally honest about where they're from, I guess. (Yes, my brief wikipedia research does say that this is a huge problem in Nigeria, but it also says it originates all over the place.)
After all his money is gone, he kills himself, because he knows that if he files for bankruptcy, he will lose his house and be charged with fraud. So say the police, anyway, but my source says "unlikely." Laura decides to go to Nigeria, even though it "isn't about the money" and once there, tries to get the money back.
The story is also about Winston, the young scammer who is co-opted into a larger criminal organization. The story uses and discards him very casually, although it seems like maybe he deserves some more screentime, as it were. It's also about Nnamdi, a young man from the Nigerian interior, whose life has been intimately tied up with oil exploration in the region, and Amina, the young pregnant woman he picks up along his journeys. This is the most interesting of the stories in the novel, and seems perhaps to be where Ferguson's true heart lies. But it doesn't really tie in well with the rest of the novel - the part where the stories intersect seems shoehorned in. If the story of oil exploration in Nigeria is what he wanted to tell, just do that. Don't try to sell me three novels in one, while giving all of them short shrift. I love intersecting stories, when they're done well. This ain't it.
And yet, this won the Giller, so maybe I'm just missing something. But this book irritated me far more than it engaged me. And while I don't demand that characters act the same way I would, I do want to understand why they act the way they do, and I never felt like I did. Instead, the Canadian characters in particular became these bundles of arbitrary actions, not people at all. Not going to recommend this one, and I definitely disagree with the Giller jury.