Book Review: The Bitter Taste of a Sweet Crude Odyssey – Terh Agbedeh
Book Title: Sweet Crude Odyssey
Author: Lawrence Amaeshi
Publisher: Kachifo Limited (Prestige Imprint)
Publication year: 2016
Reviewer: Terh Agbedeh
There is a reason crude oil obtained from Nigeria’s Niger Delta region is called ‘Sweet Crude’ but the well known tale is that of the bitterness that surrounds the area where a large quantity of the black gold emanates.
Almost everyone who has grown up in Nigeria knows the story of the Niger Delta region, which lays the golden eggs to feed the rest of the country fat but is rewarded with degradation, pain and poverty. It is an old story of oppression, strife and blowback. It is a grim story.
So, why would anyone want to read Lawrence Amaeshi’s retelling in his Sweet Crude Odyssey? The simple answer is in the telling. As it is widely known in literary cycles, it is often not the story but the telling that can make a book compelling to the reader. And what a telling by Amaeshi, who renders it like one who knows the ever shifting battle grounds of the region. His is a story of abject poverty right next to the lavish wealth of a ruthless international web of oil thieves. Of deals, dollars, guns, binge drinking, women and living on the fast lane. It is the reality that many in the region live with since oil was discovered there.
The uncertainty in the Niger Delta, the lack of trust, and the eeriness in the creeks are what Amaeshi captures in this enlightening Sweet Crude Odyssey, which not only tells a vivid story but is also a manual on the illicit trade of oil theft. The indigenous people whom the ever threatening walls of oil exploration have set adrift on the creeks, their offspring who can neither find work nor meaning, the different shades of exploiters that hold the very tits of the land and daily suck it dry. What is more, the writer gives all of it a human face, plucking metaphors that leap to life from the very atmosphere.
Unforgettable is his protagonist, Bruce Abel Telema’s first trip into the creeks to begin his journey as the representative of his international collaborators, Steve and Vergas. This is one of the highest points of Sweet Crude Odyssey as the writer paints a clear and moving picture not just of the flora, fauna and sounds, he also presents the abominable conditions under which the people in the region subsist. How they struggle with want, their battles to hold on to the little spaces they have carved for themselves and their daily dance with death.
Bruce is clearly there for the money as Acid accuses him early in the book when he asks him what he knows about the Niger Delta struggle, drawing his anger.
“Do you know how many people have died in this fight? Do you think dollars can bring them back?” Acid asks. It is also from Acid this chilling question emanates; “do you know what it is to hide for your entire life in the gutter and stay there long enough to know the rats by name because of crude oil?”
Even General One-hand Jo has been there, he after all grew up in the squalid neighbourhood he casually points out to Bruce on one of their outings.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, which reads so fast and I daresay, furious, that it is difficult to put down after picking it up, Bruce has a heart-to-heart with his father. But his father’s heart is not in the conversation for he has branded his son and many others as criminals, in the country he has slaved as a civil servant to put right.
“This country does not deserve my years of honest service,” the old man says.
As if his father’s words are prophetic, everything goes on very well for Bruce who has chosen a different path than his father. For a long time Bruce appears invincible, he is a natural and mixes very well in the world where people have aliases like Excellent Commander, General One-Hand Jo, Acid, Africa and a host of others. A world where death is more certain than anything else and he manages to clock in 10 years in the business. In that time he has a lot of near misses with death including a kidnapping and torture by the dreaded Baba T and several open gang-like shootouts. Then a mega-deal that’s too good to be true comes along to unravel it all. That deal opens the door for Interpol and the British police to come into Bruce’s life.
One cannot forget that Bruce, who had once settled in for ‘honest service’ to the country walked this dangerous path because he reached a point in his life when he believed honest work would not do. One day he loses his job and his new contract job supplying to a gas exploration company is not so satisfying nor does it pay so well. And opportunity comes knocking.
Bruce is clearly a strong character looming large from page one to 342 of the book. But Sweet Crude Odyssey lacks strong female characters. The women in Bruce’s life are either only to be seen like his mother; or eventually evil like Daisy, or plagued with religion baggage like Kathy, or don’t even feature like his sisters.
It is hard to find a book that is perfect as is the case with Sweet Crude Odyssey, but of particular concern is Africa apparently dying on one page and showing up a few pages later.
No matter, Sweet Crude Odyssey is a very strong first book that will travel far and anyone looking for a fast-paced crime book should dive right in.