Hamish Hamilton £12.99

Oil on Water, By Helon Habila

Corruption, pollution and madness bedevil a journey upriver in this Conradian novel

Rufus, a rookie newshound fresh out of the Lagos school of journalism, and Zaq, a legendary investigative reporter fallen from grace, are on a mission to find Isabel Floode. A British petrol-engineer's wife, Floode has been kidnapped from the ex-pat enclave of Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt, and held to ransom somewhere among the myriad islands in the delta.

Oil has desecrated the once-fecund coastal habitat. Dead fish clog the toxic, swampy water and the corpses of birds with slick-blackened outstretched wings are draped over tree branches; foliage is "suffocated" by a film of oil, while gas flares give a hellish hue to the dark horizon. There is a graphic reality to this apocalyptic landscape of abandoned settlements and poisoned wells that easily, seamlessly segues into a metaphor for the physical and political corruption of Nigeria, whose indigenous people are abused and dispossessed by the tentacular pipelines snaking through their dying communities.

In her youth, Rufus's sister had been facially disfigured by a pipeline-related explosion, and Helon Habila gently pulls her thread into his cloth as though reminding us of the innocent lives drawn into the oil-fuelled civil war. As their canoe drifts through this befouled atmosphere, Zaq, steadily declining with a variant of dengue fever, waxes philosophical: "Forget the woman and her kidnappers for a moment. What we really seek is not them but a greater meaning. Remember, the story is not the final goal."

This sage warning gives purposeful coherence to the mazy strands of Habila's confident new novel. From the opening sentence, he introduces notes of uncertainty, a difficulty of recalling events, which lend Rufus's narration a hallucinatory quality that reinforces the trauma of his story. Events loop back and forth in the novel's subtly fragmented chronology as though Rufus's memories share the labyrinthine twists, hidden islands and sudden mists of the Nigerian delta where this punishing odyssey takes place.

During their quest, the journalists are captured by a demented army major who douses his captives from a watering can filled with petrol. His sullen troops are conducting a guerrilla war with the region's renegade militias, self-appointed freedom fighters who have nothing to lose in their terrorist onslaught against the oil companies' government-backed brutal occupation of their homelands.

Somewhat inevitably this resonant novel will be referenced against Joseph Conrad's masterpieces – both Lord Jim for Rufus's restless, exhausted narration and Heart of Darkness for the way that Habila incrementally intensifies the sense of menace and insecurity, both physical and political, as Rufus and Zaq penetrate further upstream into militant-held territory.

More significant, however, is how Habila has built on his own earlier work. Waiting for an Angel, his powerful 2003 debut, pieced together desultory fragments of life under General Abacha's oppressive mid-1990s regime into a loud protest against censorship and tyranny. Abacha notoriously hanged the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa for protesting against the despoliation of his oil-rich homeland and the human rights of his dispossessed community. The risk-taking journalist at the heart of that novel could be a younger Zaq, and the meandering plot of Oil on Water belies a similar sense of reportage urgency.

The "greater meaning" gnomically mentioned by Zaq at the outset of this adventure permeates Habila's prose as much as the oil in the atmosphere. The prescient quality of his writing is rooted in this sense that his narrator-journalists bear witness to events of international significance, in which the skirmish of Floode's ordeal is a grubby sideshow compared with the wholesale usurping and comprehensive destruction of large tracts of tribal land, heritage and livelihoods.

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