October book review – Will Ferguson’s Giller Prize-winning novel 419 falls flat

Update: If you’re looking for discussion questions for 419, click here!

Will Ferguson’s Giller Prize-winning novel419, was last month’s Unputdownable Book Club pick, plucked from the front-and-centre bookstore shelf by yours truly.

Before you even ask, the answer is yes; I am a psychic. I harnessed my book club superpowers to see into the future and pick from the Giller short list what would become the eventual winner.

But the more important question is: Should it have won?

That was the question that launched a thousand discussions at our last meeting. And members were all over the proverbial map when it came down to their opinions of Ferguson’s debut thriller novel.

Overall, the club rated the book 2.75 out of five. That ain’t great by our standards, and certainly doesn’t speak fondly of this year’s Giller pick. I rated it the highest at 3.75 because I thoroughly enjoyed it. But after the discussion, I came away with some valuable (and rebutting) insight I didn’t manage to glean while reading the book on my own. This is usually the case at book club, and why I appreciate our meetings so much — aside from the great company, food and ever-flowing wine, of course.

The book was described as being similar to the 2004 academy award-winning movie Crash where several characters’ stories spontaneously collide and interweave and in the process divulge significant cultural and social lessons. Indeed, 419 brought to light an underground industry that is mostly unknown by many of us living in the west and the cultural, historical and social issues that vein from it all the way from the Nigerian Delta to Calgary, Alberta.

The only contact you may have had with the lucrative 419 industry is an email, likely flagged as spam, that starts something like this: “Dear sir, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help…” If you’re anything like me, you swiftly put an end those would-be relationships with a swift click of the delete button.

But not everyone is as quick-witted, as demonstrated by the devastating demise of one of the characters in the novel. This older man, Henry Curtis, fell for a 419 scam (a type of advance fee fraud) that left him and his family penniless. The novel opens with Henry already dead, tangled in his car after a horrific accident. To avoid issuing a spoiler alert, we’re led to believe he was either murdered or committed suicide. But one thing is certain … it all links back to the 419ers. This mystery is what launches his daughter Laura’s investigation and journey to track the emails that started it all, which lands her at their origins in Lagos, Nigeria.

On that point, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the characters’ lives in this novel collide spontaneously. Rather, this brave young woman, our novel’s heroine, both indirectly and directly orchestrates their encounters by injecting herself into the 419 system.

Four very different narratives intersect, each revealing a different perspective on the 419 industry, from the “entrepreneurially-minded” 419ers themselves to those who are cheated … or who are greedy, brainless thieves sucking money out of Africa, depending on how you look at it.

Laura is a freelance copy editor who works from home in Calgary. Winston wants desperately to escape his life in Lagos and sees scamming as his ticket to freedom and prosperity. Amina, a pregnant peasant, flees northern Africa to find work at a marketplace in the south. She meets Nnamdi, a fisherman’s son from the Niger Delta who first worked for Shell Oil but then turned to help his people siphon oil and sell it on the black market.

It’s from showing these various perspectives that Ferguson balances the narrative, reduces bias and tells a believable and thought-provoking story that captivates his readers and reveals the complexity that is the 419 industry (my bias on display in full colour).

However, my fellow book clubbers helped me recognize some serious flaws. If you’re a more attentive reader than me, you will notice that some story lines are dropped entirely, left unresolved, and that there are misleading signs peppered throughout the story. For instance, were you led to believe that detective Brisebois would fall in love with Laura, what with all the window staring? That was a big disappointment. You might also be let down when you learn about the reasons for Henry’s untimely death.

As for the ending: Meh – satisfactory but anticlimactic and rather predictable for a thriller.

Giller Prize-worthy? We think not. But that’s for the experts to decide.

Have you read 419? What did you think?

Update: If you’re looking for discussion questions for 419, click here!


About Alexandra Reid

Alex Reid is Marketing Manager at Soshal where she helps lead the agency's national marketing, business development, and recruitment initiatives. Prior to joining Soshal, Alex was a technology journalist and consultant for B2B technology businesses focusing primarily on the strategic processes necessary to bring new technology to market. Beyond co-hosting IABC's The Voice podcast, Alex volunteers her talents as Director of Partnerships at Canadian Women in Communications and Technology (CWCT), and as a Communications Committee Member at The Well, a gathering place for women and their children. Alex holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University. Known vices include eating crackers in bed and cat gifs.
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16 Responses to October book review – Will Ferguson’s Giller Prize-winning novel 419 falls flat

  1. Brittany Hinds says:

    Great review Alex!


  2. Julia Kent says:

    I think it’s an awesome one too!


  3. Alexandra Reid says:

    Thanks guys 🙂 Yay, a wee fan club!


  4. Brad says:

    I was more confused by the Laura’s actions in the ending. I can understand sending all the money to Amina, but maxing her credit cards as well? Don’t get it. The Brisbois thing was also unnerving. His story just went nowhere, along with the “deaths” he was “investigating”.


    • Thanks for your comment, Brad. I couldn’t agree more with your points. Brisbois didn’t go anywhere – I was hoping that he and Laura would get together or something, but alas that wasn’t the case. And yes, the ending didn’t do much for me. As a thriller, I expected something profoundly riveting and action packed. I did enjoy the description of the car ride through Lagos, and there was at least a threat in the hotel room, but the outcome of that whole sequence of events was a little flat if you ask me.

      In true book club tradition, what would you rate the book out of five?


  5. Pingback: Book club discussion questions for Will Ferguson’s 419 | The "Unputdownable" Book Club

  6. Chanel says:

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  7. Vigil McCarthy says:

    I haven’t “heard” any discussion of the aspect about Canada/other developed country taking advantage of Nigeria/other underdeveloped country’s oil reserves for our own purposes as a critical point of this book. The author does not directly state this but I feel the point is very clearly there and an important aspect for discussion. Perhaps Ferguson does not make this a clear issue but is so relevant to a discussion of this book. V


  8. Crystal says:

    Hi there, I was wondering if you could answer a few questions I have on this novel. What social issues are addressed in the novel? How are they addressed? Does this novel have anything important to say about how we behave as a society? What are the major themes in the story and how have they been presented? Much thanks, Crystal.


  9. ahmed says:

    Can you describe the relationship of brisebois and Laura


  10. ahmed says:

    And how does the novel resist traditional depiction of gender roles and relationships


  11. Sam Hutton says:

    Should it have won?
    No, I don’t think so, I have not read any of the other books that were nominated in 2012 that were finalist to 419. So I can not say that 419 was not the best book in that year. Based on the story of 419 I can fairly say that it was not a book that should win an award in Canadian literature. The book did have some great moments where I could see it live up to the hype of being an award winner. I found the beginning and the end of the book to be award winning quality. I also thought that Nnamdi’s story was very interesting and brought the reader into the book. I found Nnamdi’s story the most intriguing, and was like the main character to me. This is one of the reasons that I don’t think that the book should be an award winner. The main character is Laura, and the majority of the book should be focused on her, but it’s not. She does not resemble a typical protagonist and this falters the book as she is simply a character we cannot fall in love with. Personally I really didn’t care if she faced trouble when she headed to Nigeria. This was probably because I was more interested in Winston and Nnamdi’s story and cared more about them then Laura.

    I would disagree with you and your group on two points you mentioned. Your rating was a little low for my liking, as I personally would give it a 3.5 out of 5 as the book had some really great moments that did overpower some of the lows, but overall it was just an okay read. I also disagree with your opinion that the ending wasn’t great. I found the ending to be quite good, it tied the four stories off nicely. Yes, it did leave the reader with some questions surrounding the story but overall I thought the ending was one of the better parts of the book.


    • Julia Kent says:

      Hi Sam, thanks so much for stopping by and letting us know what you thought of 419! One of the best parts of book club is the discussion that comes out of reading each novel – especially all the differing views and opinions! We hope you’ll continue to read along with us. Have a great weekend!



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