Book Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
7th January, 2016
Happy New Year all!! Hope you had a wonderful time this holiday season. Starting off the year with the last book I read in 2015. And it is an amazing read. Cheers to a bookish year ahead!
The Fishermen is the story of four brothers coming to terms with a prophecy about the death of the eldest by the local mad man Abulu. Abulu, though ridiculed by the residents of the village is feared too because of the strangeness with which all of his predictions come true. Will rationality be eroded by superstitious beliefs is the question that looms around this Man Booker prize 2015 shortlisted novel.
Picture this – A large middle class African family, a very stern father who has big dreams for his sons and four brothers who are very close to each other. What would happen if the brothers were to hear a prophecy about the harm that may befall one of them? And what if the cause of the harm would be one among them? Thus begins Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen – the story of four brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin, who live in the village of Akure.
“To my brother, Ikenna, the fear of death as prophesied by Abulu had become palpable, a caged world within which he was irretrievably trapped, and beyond which nothing else existed.”
When the novel opens, their strict father is transferred to the city of Yola by his employer, and the eldest brother is fifteen. Their mother is busy with their younger siblings (Remember, I said ‘large’ family) and doesn’t have time to supervise them. The brothers devour the pleasure of their newly found freedom by ignoring their studies and sneaking off to fish in the Omi-Ala river, which is considered a cursed place.
During one of these trips that the brothers encounter Abulu, a local madman, known for his eerily accurate prophecies, public masturbation and garments of filth and waste. He predicts that Ikenna would be murdered by a ‘fisherman’. And hence begins a battle of right and wrong in the minds of the brothers. Ikenna fears that the prophecy points towards one of his brothers as they have been fishing for a few weeks. The brothers try to convince Ikenna to be logical but the fear that engulfs him eats into their relationship as well as his approach to his mother, about whom he was very protective earlier.
The underlying currents of political references to MKO Abiola, a millionaire politician, give a glimpse of the political situation of Nigeria in 1990s. Obioma himself has said that the novel can be seen as a political allegory to foreign occupation of Nigeria that forced the country to be ‘British idea of a nation’ rather than what it should be for the better hood of its citizens (Read the interview here).
The Fishermen is a dark yet flamboyant novel of a close-knit family that disintegrates because of a mad man. The change in the psychology of all the members is vividly written. I really enjoyed the read of the progressive Christian household succumbing to the fear of folklore and superstitions and the dramatic tension that enfolds them. Your heart goes out to the mother, painstakingly trying to glue the bonds in the family in every way she knows, whether by prayers or by pastors and the father whose “map of dreams, soon died despite how much he guarded it”. The characters are detailed (I must admit Abulu’s depiction was annoyingly over-detailed) and each of them is compared to an animal/bird (father as an eagle, younger siblings as egrets etc) with the rest of the chapter explaining why so.
“Hatred is a leech: The thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit. It changes a person, and does not leave until it has sucked the last drop of peace from them.”
There is modern writing carved in African storytelling. There is a tug of war between faith in church and panic of superstitious beliefs. The narrative perspective of the nine year old Benjamin is perfect as it lends a child-like innocence to the turn of events. There is guilt and grief in the minds of all four brothers as they are forced apart. Whether it is a supernatural intervention or Ikenna’s faith in the prophecy that starts the ‘domino-effect’ is for the readers to decide. The novel is on a similar line of Anita Desai’s Cry, The Peacock which is a psychological novel about the distress a childhood prophecy of a disaster can inculcate in a person. The novel does have a few minor hiccups, but that can be overlooked. Give this one a try. You wouldn’t be disappointed.
Title: The Fishermen
Author: Chigozie Obioma
Publisher : Pushkin Press
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About the Author
Chigozie Obioma is a Nigerian writer whose debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2015. He has been called the ‘heir to Chinua Achebe’ in a New York Times book review. The Fishermen first appeared as a short story in Virginia Quarterly Review and has been recognized for its brilliance through various awards. He is working on his second novel The Falconer.