Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like musings of the author.
The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez; oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. This week it’s Adem Johnson.
Ademuyiwa Johnson is the son and heir of Joseph Johnson, who heads up the powerful Johnson Petroleum Corporation in the Niger delta. Adem’s character and story is one of the most multi-faceted in the book; like D’Souza, he straddles multiple identities and struggles to define himself against several different contexts. More than any other character Adem allowed me to explore ideas and themes that aren’t overt in other parts of the book, such as father-son relationships, sibling rivalries, and responsibilities disposed towards two different countries.
I’ve been asked a couple of times why I picked Nigeria as the setting for the latter half of the book and, therefore, the country of Adem’s and his family’s birth. The simple answer is that on a high level it satisfied many of the geographical and political criteria I set; it’s oil rich (and getting richer), it has a coastline, and it has a colonial history with the UK, allowing for geopolitical ties to be easily established in my imagined world. Nigeria is also the site of a long-running and tragic historical grievance, which allowed me to easily imagine its evolution into a bloody insurgence run by guerrilla Marxist revolutionaries who hid and moved in the delta, much like the Marxist revolutionaries of Colombia. I almost chose Saudi Arabia as the foreign setting instead of Nigeria, particularly because of the Al-Yamamah business deal, but settled on Nigeria because of the watery wilds of the delta, and the fact that I was lucky enough to know people who’d worked in the oil and gas industry over there.
So Adem Johnson is Nigerian, but his career in London means he feels – and, to his father, seems – more like an Englishman than a Nigerian. I wrote Adem as a sort of well-to-do throwback, with more accentuated genteel English mannerisms than many of the English members of the cast, but his father’s shadow looms large, and he is not so genteel. At a basic level all Adem wants is to win the affections of his father, but beneath that his intentions and schemes are more Machiavellian.
The difficult relationship Adem has with Joseph – and, by extension, his squabbling siblings – is a result of this slightly fragmented sense of self he has. His brother Remus is an undeconstructed boor, while his sister is a left-wing firebrand who doesn’t hold truck with her family’s nefarious dealings in the oil sector. In every sense Adem is the Golden Boy of the family; he’s the eldest, he has a respectable job, an excellent network of contacts, and the business acumen to hold him in good stead during his future position at the head of the family business. And yet. Families crackle with relationships that don’t make sense. Joseph is hypermasculine, unrefined and direct. Families are rarely as close knit as they ought to appear on the surface. Conflict brews within every in-joke and every dig. But it makes for good writing!
Like all the characters in Man O’War, I like to think that, under Adem’s scheming skin there beats the heart of somebody who wants to do something good, both politically and personally. I don’t buy into the notion of evil very easily; in some way every ambition can be justified, however skewed and warped that justification may be. Like the rest of the cast, I found Adem’s written sweet spot snared somewhere between bad decisions and good intentions. In this respect he makes for a perfect associate for Nita Rhodes, who also is trying to balance those multiplying spinning plates. They really are made for each other, because I made them that way.
I always felt Adem was my classically tragic character, the man who is dragged to his fate by his own designs. The question is: can he draw himself back from the brink? As he covers his tracks he finds himself dealing with Tilda Boulton, the DS with a grudge. We’ll take a look at Tilda next week.