OIL ON WATER BY HELON HABILA Hamish Hamilton, 216pp, £12.99
THERE'S a scene a little over half-way through this third novel by Nigerian author Helon Habila that neatly sums up its fundamental flaw. Ambitious young journalist Rufus and his seasoned, permanently sozzled colleague Zaq find themselves momentarily at a loose end on a remote island somewhere in the Niger Delta.
"Here we are, pursuing what is almost a perfect story," reflects Zaq. "A British woman kidnapped by local militants who are fighting to protect their environment from greedy multinational oil companies. Perfect. A good story for any paper."
True, a story like that, in which all the actors play obvious, clearly defined roles, can certainly be a gift for a journalist on deadline, but novels, surely, are all about subtlety, about detail, about teasing out the complexities of a situation. A journalist with a straightforward story can hammer it out quickly, but a novelist trying to turn the same story into a book will quickly find himself bereft of anything interesting to say. Unless, of course, like Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea or George Orwell in Animal Farm, he can somehow use an apparently simple narrative framework as a means of addressing big, universal themes.
Unfortunately there's little to suggest that this is what Habila is attempting with Oil on Water.
Plot-wise, things advance with crushing inevitability. Zaq and Rufus are sent, along with a handful of other journalists, to meet the militants who have kidnapped the British woman in question, Isobel Floode, and, if possible, to verify that she is still alive. The man sponsoring their journey is Isobel's husband, James, and there's a particularly toe-curling scene in which he tries to talk Zaq into taking the assignment by pointing out that they both attended Leeds University ("I hope that means something to you").
From there, things develop more or less as you'd expect: the oil engineer turns out to be a bit of a scumbag, the militants turn out to be good guys – oh, and naturally wee Rufus gets his scoop.
Habila is evidently a gifted writer. He won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region, in 2003 for Waiting for an Angel; and there are certainly one or two beautifully atmospheric passages here that give a real flavour of what life in the Niger Delta must be like, with oil flares lighting up the night sky and a thick layer of oil smothering the water the local people rely on for their livelihoods. It's just a shame that he chose to lash these descriptions to the deck of such a leaden, two-dimensional tale.