Doing Dangerously Well, by Carole Enahoro

This review marks my completion of the four novels that comprise this year’s The New Face of Fiction and, for this reader, it has been a wonderful experience. And, for those who have followed the reviews, stay tuned. One of the objectives of this blog is to provide a forum for Canadian fiction writers to the rest of the world (and I know the world is interested) so this chance to introduce new Canadian voices is much appreciated. Thanks to the generosity of Random House Canada, and with a bump from KfC, the blog will be announcing tomorrow two giveaway contests that will give you the chance to win your pick of the four.

Carole Enahoro’s Doing Dangerously Well joins a relatively short, but impressive, list of fiction that links the experience of Nigeria and its people with First World economics. Ben Okri’s The Famished Road was, for me at least, first into the lists, a compelling, but difficult, exploration that never left Nigeria — but spoke enough to Western tastes that it won the 1991 Booker Prize. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie followed with Half of a Yellow Sun, the 2007 Orange Prize winner, and her 2009 short story collection — The Thing Around Your Neck — which has attracted a positive critical response. Carole Enahoro, who was born in London of a Nigerian father and is now a resident of Nigeria, Britain and Canada, adds her contribution to the list with this novel.

Doing Dangerously Well verges on being polemical (not a favorite trait for me, I’ll admit, but this novel overcomes that objection) and it is worth knowing that before picking it up. The story begins with the collapse of Kainji Dam. The dam is real, built in the 1960s and one of the longest in the world, but it has not collapsed (although that may be imminent) — Enahoro uses that speculation to frame her story of conflict. As it moves on, the novel contemplates what manipulative forces would be put into play — historical, economic, political and, perhaps most important, opportunistic — when such a disaster might occur. Those who are following the Gulf of Mexico-BP story may well find some metaphorical messages in this book.

The first character the author introduces — Amos — will survive only a few pages. He is a charismatic figure (“striding like a panther”), who has made good (“from his snakeskin boots to his sheepskin jacket, all was as it should be”), and he has returned to his native village of Ndadu to acknowledge both his family heritage and his ancestral history. In the midst of the celebration of his return, the dam bursts and Amos, not to mention Ndadu, is swept away. So are hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who live downstream from the dam.

Enahoro has framed her story at this point. The elements that will come into play for the rest of the book need to be introduced and it does require some patience from the reader for her to put them in place.

Most important is another whose brother has drowned, this time in a childhood “incident”:

Two days after the disaster, a white Mercedes-Benz pulled up outside the house of General Abucha, the head of Nigerian armed forces. Out stepped the short, plump form of Ogbo Kolo, enfolded in a gold agbada. He immediately opened his Chinese parasol for the twenty-yard trip to the front door. There, he waited for his driver to press the bell. After this formality, he handed his driver the parasol and exchanged it for his briefcase. They both stood at attention and looked straight ahead at the door.

The disaster will promote Kolo into the presidency — if it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else. He has been riding a lucrative wave of corruption as a cabinet minister; that wave can only get more tsunami-like now that he controls the government.

And the key to that is his relationship with TransAqua, an American firm that is more than willing to rebuild the dam, providing that it also receives the ownership rights to all of Nigeria’s water supplies, down to the puddles from which stray dogs take their sustenance. Enahoro uses the TransAqua angle to introduce one of her better sub-plots, the conflict between two daughters of an international dam-builder. The sisters come to represent the contrasting intrusive effects of American politics on the Nigerian experience (think Halliburton versus the Gates Foundation — which is the greater threat?). Mary is her father’s daughter, committed to corporate development, a true-believer in the free market and American domination of the world and a mid-level player at TransAqua, eager to move up by proving herself on significant projects, such as this Nigerian opportunity. Her sister, Barbara, has headed in the other direction — counter-culture, pro-environment, anti-capitalist:

She spotted panic in Mary’s bat-like eyes — as the elder sister, perfection was Mary’s watchword, and anything less could destroy her. A wash of empathy swept trough Barbara: her sister was only adopting the role the family demanded of her. Even she expected this unwittingly female creature, placed at a precarious height, to represent the family’s ideals. If Mary fell, Barbara would feel the bruise just as keenly.

The conflict between Mary and Barbara will become one of the more interesting themes of the book, but there is more of the set-up yet to come — because, of course, there must be internal Nigerian resistance to the plans of Kolo ripping off the country for the benefit of TransAqua and selling out his people. This character is Femi Jegede, Amos’ brother:

Here was one of the great orators in Nigeria, who could make the ears and eyes of even his most radical opponents prick up like an antelope’s. Femi possessed wit and style, backed by strong legal training, and so could make pounded yam out of the most logical argument. Added to this, his exchanges had an air of theatricality about them, his greatest prop being his ever-present agbada — a voluminous tunic that expanded his physical presence and gave weight to his authority — though certainly no item was too minor to employ.

Those are the elements of Doing Dangerously Well. Does it work? I would have to say “a definite maybe”, but that may be a reflection of both my age and my experience. It is definitely a “story” novel, where the plot and people are much more important than the style. I do think that it is an entirely worthwhile first effort and will be very interested in whatever direction the author chooses to go in her next work.

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10 Responses to “Doing Dangerously Well, by Carole Enahoro”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Very interesting, Kevin. I liked your definite maybe at the end. Your reivew makes leads me to that response on whether I should read it. I think mostly due to the books you list at the beginning, I might try this one out someday. I really liked The Famished Road, though it was incredibly difficult to wrestle with; I’m not sure, in fact, if I would have been able to do it were it not a novel I read with a class. And I just got the newish Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie short story collection, which starts out incredible (that’s not to say it doesn’t end incredible, but I’m just at the start).

  2. Ruth Seeley Says:

    Amos is Femi Jegede’s brother, not Kolo’s. Kolo drowned his brother when they were children.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thank you, Ruth — a major error on my part. There are three sibling sets in the book, not just two. I have taken the liberty of correcting the review. Thanks again for spotting my mistake.

  3. Kerry Says:

    I enjoyed the review, Kevin. It sounds like this is not the first I should pick up of the four novels in The New Face of Fiction series. I like how you have managed to set the plot up without introducing spoilers and, as well, convey some of the interesting character dynamics.

    I am sure Canadian writers appreciate your tireless boostering of a sometimes overlooked (by me) literary region. I am looking forward to rectifying, to some extent, my deficiencies in Canadian literature. Thanks.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor, Kerry: This is not really my type of novel — I know when I am reading it that I struggle with it more than I should. I almost feel guilty that while I undertand the importance of some of the complexities of the plot, I find it difficult to identify with them. Despite that, I think the author engaged me on her central themes and she deserves credit for that.

  5. Ruth Seeley Says:

    You’re welcome, Kevin – I would have notified you privately but I can’t find your email anywhere on the blog!

  6. amymckie Says:

    This sounds like a really god book. Definitely one that I would like to read. If you want another that discusses environmental issues regarding oil production and the government vs people in Nigeria the non-fiction work ‘The Politics of Bones’ is really good. It is a kind of biography of the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

  7. Wandering Coyote Says:

    I loved this book! Of the three New Face of Fiction novels I read & reviewed, this is my favourite, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year! The satire was brilliant, as was the humour and the snappy characterizations! I read it well before the BP disaster, though, but I have thought of the disaster capitalism repercussions of that, too – hard not to do after reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    WC: It wasn’t my favorite of the four, but I think that is more a reflection of my tastes than any comment on the quality of the novel. I’d cast my vote for Ghosted. Having said that, as I noted in my post on my New Face of Fiction contest, I think all four were worthy choices — a very impressive introduction of four new novelists. And I would add Kathleen Winter’s Annabel (published by Anansi, not Random House) as another very worthy book from a new author.

  9. Wandering Coyote Says:

    I didn’t get a copy of Ghosted, but I’ll look out for it.

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