Journalists getting into trouble in Africa have been a plot staple sat least since Evelyn Waugh's classic “Scoop.” But this time, the reporters in over their head are from the area (not that that helps them much).
Commonwealth Prize winner Helon Habila's third novel, Oil on Water (W.W. Norton & Co., 224 pp.), follows two journalists as they search for a British woman who was kidnapped in the oil-rich Nigerian Delta. Rufus, the less-talented rookie at The Reporter (the more talented one recently got himself killed on an assignment), and Zaq, a legendary journalist who can now only locate the bottom of a bottle, are traveling by canoe into militant-infested waters at the request of the missing woman's husband (who can't be bothered to leave his air-conditioned condo). The assignment was supposed to be straightforward: “Just confirm she's alive, take pictures.… It should be easy. You leave in two days, early, and by sundown you're back.” But when they arrive at the site arranged by the kidnappers, everyone has been gunned down and there's no sign of the missing woman.
The novel's suspense lays slickly on top of deeper waters, as Rufus and Zaq try to navigate the chaos brought on by violence, corruption, incompetence, and environmental ruin. “Just look at the other villages that had taken the oil money: already the cars had broken down, and the cheap televisions and DVD players were all gone, and where was the rest of the money? Thrown away in Port Harcourt barrooms or on second wives and funeral parties, and now they were worse off than before,” as one chief explains to Rufus. “Their rivers were already polluted and useless for fishing, and the land grew only gas flares and pipelines.”