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

4.1 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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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.

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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: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #451,157 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Oil on Water is the masterful third novel by Helon Habila, and once again the author tackles another timely topic, this time the deadly politics of oil in the Niger Delta. The wife of a British oil executive has been kidnapped by a group of militants, and this in itself is not necessarily newsworthy as it is a common enough occurrence in the region with its own rules for the exchange of monies and the release of the kidnapped person. As journalists are usually involved to help facilitate the process, Rufus, a young journalist, takes the assignment to find "the white woman", as he senses this could be his big break. He is excited to work with his mentor, Zaq, a once-renowned journalist who has fallen from grace and now lives in an alcoholic haze. But, a seemingly routine event takes an unexpected turn which leads Rufus and Zaq on a life-threatening and introspective journey. Through this adventure, both Rufus and the reader will be often reminded of Zaq's sage advice, "Remember, the story is not always the final goal."

One of the strengths of this enthralling story is the unfolding of the tale through Rufus' memory that is often patchy and hallucinatory matching it to the environment with its twists and turns in the river, and the hidden islands appearing and disappearing before your eyes. This provides a cinematic quality as the scenes are vividly painted for the reader, making the Niger Delta as much a character as Rufus and Zaq. The expert storytelling allows the reader to feel empathy for the characters that live in an environment where often who is the good guy and who is the bad guy is dependent on the breathtaking tricks of chance that can result in life or death in a second.
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