“We believe the sun rising brings a renewal. All of creation is born anew with the new day. Whatever goes wrong in the night has a chance for redemption after a cycle.” 

Publisher: First published by Hamish Hamilton. Now Penguin Books.

Year: 2010

The wife of a British oil engineer has been kidnapped and two journalists are recruited on a mission to find her. Zaq is an infamous journalist who was well-respected in his times, while Rufus is a young reporter who’s craving to make a name for himself in the industry and he’s a great admirer of the ageing hack. They set off on what may seem to be a straight-forward mission but the unknown awaits them as they journey into the dangerous oil zones of the Niger Delta.

At first there are other journalists added but after they return to Port Harcourt, Zaq and Rufus find themselves carrying on to find the truth. They end up being guided by an old man and his son, moving from one abandoned and destroyed village to another. Along their journey, people have been taken by the military, death has left a scent behind, the waters where people depended for fishing have been contaminated, the air is heavy with the smoke from the burnings and animals and plants have been killed. Zaq contracts a disease and his love for the bottle does not help his condition, yet he’s determined to carry on. Rufus makes a great deal of discoveries about the darkness and corruption in the world he has entered and learns about the events that led to the disappearance of the woman he’s out to find, while his life could be in danger and there’s a possibility of him losing his fellow journalist.

Oil on Water expresses the real catastrophe that took place in those oil-abundant regions. There’s a good illustration of environmental decay, the struggle for power, political corruption and the destruction of communities that were once closely knit and thriving. Habila writes the story by jumping from one period to another; relating the present and then shifting to recalling memories. It is a good form of writing and most of the time, if you are willing to keep up and pay attention, it makes the read interesting. However, there are parts where you can find yourself lost in some of the temporal shift. At one point the main character is in a terrorised village and the next page you find yourself in a different location that sounds similar but you have to focus hard to find out where exactly he is. The protagonist is realistic and very easy to root for. At times he appears to be a novice who may have found himself doing the job because of circumstances far from passion yet along the way he seems to have the knack for the job. A combination of fear and guts, which makes him an acceptable character and one that people can relate to. The ending was not as thrilling as I had expected, I was left wanting more and hungry for real excitement. It could have left me with my mouth hanging, a major discovery that grabs balls with sharp nails but there was just something flat about the ending. Overall, the entire story itself is well-written and there’s a good flow that pulls you into the pages so that you want to see what happens next.

Helon Habila is a novelist and poet, born in Nigeria. He did his studies of English Language and Literature at the University of Jos. In 2001 Love Poems, one of the stories in his short story anthology, received the Caine Prize for African Writing. His debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, came out in 2002. It went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book (Africa Region). After winning the Caine Prize, he was invited to be the first African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia, where he stayed as a Chevening Scholar, and later as a PhD Candidate. Together with Parrésia Publishers, he started a publishing company called Cordite Books in 2013. Some of his works include Measuring Time, Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz: An Anthology of New Africa Fiction, Prison Stories and many more. Habila divides his time between Nigeria and USA.

Published by Nthepa Segage