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Oil on Water: A Novel Paperback – May 16, 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 239 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (May 16, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393339645
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393339642
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Habila has a filmic ability to etch scenes on the imagination.” (The Independent)

“Starred Review. 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….his mournful vision of the world never eclipses its fragile beauty, or its humanity.” (Publishers Weekly)

About the Author

Helon Habila is the internationally renowned author of Waiting for an Angel, which won both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing, and Measuring Time and Oil on Water. He was born in Nigeria and now divides his time between America and Nigeria.

More About the Author

Helon Habila was born in Nigeria. He has lived in Lagos, Norwich, New York, Washington DC, Berlin, and currently teaches creative writing at George Mason University in Virginia, USA. His writing has won the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth Prize (Waiting for an Angel), the Emily Balch Prize, the Virginia Library Foundation Fiction Prize (Measuring Time), and shortlisted for many others. He is currently working on his fourth novel, tentatively titled Travellers.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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See all 19 customer reviews
Habila tells his story of long-term tragedy with understated grace.
Lynn Harnett
"It is the nature of existence. A thing is created, it blooms for a while if it is capable of blooming, then it ceases to be."
Kae Bender - Editor and Writer
Habila is an accomplished storyteller as well as a poet, having won numerous awards in both fields.
Friederike Knabe

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on May 16, 2011
Format: Paperback
Rufus, a young journalist on his first major assignment, travels into the troubled oil-rich Nigerian Delta, hoping to land his breakthrough news story: interviewing the kidnappers of a British oil engineer's wife and proving that the captive is alive. The dangers lurking among the oilfields and the pipelines that meander snake-like across the Delta's waters cannot deter him, especially as he is in the company of his much-admired former mentor, the erstwhile prominent reporter, Zaq. Helon Habila's new novel, "Oil on Water" is a confidently crafted and absorbing, in parts totally gripping, chronicle of human ambitions, tragedies and failures, but also of love, friendship and perseverance of the human spirit. Evoking the rich and beautiful yet fragile environment of the Delta, that is slowly being devastated by the greed for oil and money, Habila perceptively guides his different narrative strands into a poignant story that is profoundly personal even where he raises broader political and societal concerns.

Habila weaves his story in a non-chronological way: it flows back and forth in time, reflecting the reporters' meandering voyage through the vast intricate river delta. We first meet Rufus and Zaq on the ninth day of their quest. In flashbacks we learn about their back stories and, over time, that of other memorable characters. Past events are hinted at early on... Now, they are on their own, traveling by slow canoe, dependent for guidance and safety on a local fisherman and his young son to find a safe place to stay while charting their next steps. However, their time among the mangroves and later on a very special island of worshippers, is suddenly interrupted... and they have to leave their journalist role behind and use all their talents to stay alive.
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I feel most inadequate in reviewing this brilliant novel. I was moved to tears by Helon Habila's brutal yet compassionate story-telling. Oil on Water: A Novel will not leave my mind...or my heart. With keen intelligence, uncompromising perception and raw emotion, Habila writes with the eye of a journalist, the heart of a poet and the soul of a philosopher.

Read the world head-lines, watch the multi-media news reports, listen to NPR and BBC...and get the big picture of what is happening in the Niger Delta ~ big oil cashing in on Nigerian oil; a corrupt government allowing it and profiting by it; petrodollars, profits, payola all sparking rage, violence, rebellion and war; an environment raped and left toxic and dead; wildlife, birds and fish poisoned and eliminated; the livelihood of self-sustaining families and communities diminished and destroyed; the innocent men, women and children left physically, emotionally, psychologically devastated and all but annihilated or forced to flee from their homeland.

But read Oil on Water: A Novel and have all of those larger, globally discussed issues distilled down to their most essential, human essence...and then weep. Oil on Water: A Novel is personal. It is more than an expose of the oil politics of the Niger Delta...it is a compassionate, heart-rending, deeply affecting prose embracing the human spirit struggling to survive.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on May 24, 2011
Format: Paperback
A young reporter tells us how he came to be between the fronts in a Nigerian kidnapping drama in the Niger delta's oil regions. Young Rufus takes the assignment together with his aging colleague Zaq, who had been his professional idol before he got to know him as an alcoholic wreck. They join a group of reporters who are supposed to meet with the kidnappers of a British oil exec's wife, so as to verify that she is alive and thus trigger the payment.
We take a step back, zoom out of the micro-story, and find ourselves in the larger conflict: `development' of oil resources at the expense of traditional life styles. Some villagers are tempted by the promises of `progress', of consumer goods, of jobs. Others resist. Resistance is broken by force. A movement stands up against the invasion of the oil rigs. The militants fight against the military and the oil companies' private armies. Rule of law is absent.

Rufus is constantly reminded of his own past. He grew up in a similar village. His father is in prison for his involvement in a warehouse fire. His sister was disfigured by the fire. He takes care of her now. His mother has moved back to her village of origin.
Rufus became a reporter via photography. He is a talent without connections. That limits his career prospects. His experience in this kidnapping case is shocking and scary. People are peons on the chess board of the big guys: the government, the military, the oil firms, the militants...
We knew that but it bears reminding ourselves. Is there anything substantially new or surprising in this story? Not really. Does Habila show extraordinary skills with language? Not really. It is just a strong story, told efficiently.
There are soft spots though, plausibility gaps.
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