Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2015

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma #BookReview

The Fishermen The Fishermen is a remarkable debut by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma.  It is shortlisted for the 2015 Booker, and getting rave reviews everywhere.  What makes it so engaging is the storytelling style, with origins in traditional oral storytelling but very modern in its skilful narrative voice.

Ben is one of four young brothers, destined for great things, according to his ambitious, middle-class father.   Helped along by a fortuitous scholarship, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Ben go to a good school and are expected to become professionals.  But when Father is transferred to a branch of the bank at Yola – a town in the north that was a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away – the boys break free from the strict discipline of their respectable home – and tragedy unfolds…

More than a morality tale, The Fisherman is narrated by the guileless voice of Ben, aged 10, with carefully placed intrusions from his older and wiser adult self.  The adult voice explains the things that the child does not understand or foresee, so that the reader is always aware of the sense of impending disaster that follows on in an inexorable chain of events.

Nigeria as a developing nation is characterised by the conflict between the Christian faith of the family and the residual superstitions and beliefs in malevolent spirits which still have power to influence behaviour.  The family is devout, but when the boys take up fishing in the strictly forbidden (and heavily polluted) river and encounter Abulu, the town’s resident madman cum prophet, the impact of his curse on Ikenna is profound.  He tells Ikenna that he will be killed by his own brother in a river of blood, and Ikenna, who is almost fifteen, takes it to heart.  He becomes obsessed by fear, he stops eating, and he isolates himself from his family, to the extent that he won’t even let Boja share the bedroom any more.  There is endless conflict, especially when he does hurtful things such as destroying treasured possessions that are irreplaceable, and Mother has no strategies for dealing with this except for the age-old threat of  ‘wait till your father comes home’.

‘I will tell Eme everything you have done from A to Z, don’t you worry.’

She snapped her fingers at both of them, now standing apart, still trying to catch their breath.

‘Now tell me, Ikenna, what did he do to you?  Why were you fighting?’

Ikenna threw off his shirt and hissed in reply.  I was stupefied.  Hissing at an older person in Igbo culture was considered an insufferable act of insubordination.

‘What, Ikenna?’

Eh, Mama,’ Ikenna said.

‘Did you hiss at me?’ Mother said in English first, then placing her hands on her bosom, she said, ‘Obu mu ka ighi na’a ma lu osu?’

Ikenna did not answer.  He moved back to the lounge where he’d sat before the fight, picked up his shirt and walked to his room.  He slammed the door so hard that the louvres in the sitting room rattled. (p. 51)

English is used in this multilingual household only when there is serious trouble, as when Mother finds out about the fishing.  She quotes Proverbs to them in Igbo because it imbues the words with extra venom (not that it seems needed to me, it’s quite venomous enough in English: ‘The eye that mocks a father, that scorns an aged mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.)’

But all else she says in English, the language of Western education 

… instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure.  English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you.  It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it.  So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments like this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.  Our parents were adept at this, and so Mother succeeded.  For, the words ‘drowned’, ‘everything’, ‘exist’, ‘dangerous’ came out heavy, measured, charged and indicting, and lingered and tormented us long into the night. (p. 22)

The corruption and incompetence of Nigerian politics is a low-key strand in the novel.  Father has an occasional rant about it, and the kindly politician known as MKO Abiola who so impresses the boys meets an inglorious end when the 1993 election results are annulled (as they were in real life).  You can read the absence of leadership in the home as a metaphor for poor leadership in the country, but the moral of the story – and it does have one! – is that people bring tragedy on themselves, and being young does not absolve one from responsibility.

You will note that I been evasive about the plot because while the reader knows that tragedy looms, The Fishermen deserves to be read without spoilers. Suffice to say that the question of vengeance is one that arises for discussion…

Highly recommended.

PS Visit Amanda Curtin’s blog to see an interview with Chigozie Obioma!

Author: Chigozie Obioma
Title: The Fishermen
Publisher: Scribe, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106442
Personal library, purchased from Readings.

Availability
Fishpond: The Fishermen


Responses

  1. Great review – matches my thoughts completely. I doubt it will win the Booker, but it’s certainly looks good on the Short List.

    • Yes, I think you’re probably right: I’ve only read two on the shortlist, this one and The Chimes – and both seem like very good debuts to me, though The Fishermen seems significantly different and interesting by comparison – but I expect more than that from the Booker. With the whole of the world’s literature in English to choose from, the winner IMO ought to be exceptional.
      Oops, no, The Chimes wasn’t shortlisted.
      I have A History of Seven Killings – the publisher sent it to me, but I’m only going to read it if it wins, and I hope it doesn’t because I don’t like the look of it.

      • My bet is with either A Little Life or A Brief History of Seven Killings – but goodness knows I’ve been wrong before. The Chimes, The Runaways and Sleeping on Jupiter aren’t available in the US yet – I’ve read the other Long Listers.

        • Well, we’ll know soon, it’s next week I think…

  2. I have a clutch of pages to finish so haven’t read your review, nor the comments. Will come back when I’m finished (I’ve taken a side-trip to Susan Johnson’s The Landing.)

    • *snap* I did that too with this book, took a side-trip! Even though I liked this book a lot, it didn’t absorb me so wholly that I couldn’t put it to one side.
      PS Congratulations on that splendid review by Peter Pierce in The Oz. High praise from him – he has exacting standards and he doesn’t compromise to suit popular taste.

      • Just finished it but have to get ready and go and teach! So shall come back later and read your review. PS Thank you! The PP review was a good one, so encouraging. Am getting a lot of people commenting on it. Back later!

  3. I have to admit this is the only book on the shortlist I really want to read. Your review has cemented that feeling. I will wait for the paperback though… I’ve got to tackle the Giller shortlist first !

    • I hope you have more luck with your next Giller. You know, I usually buy the shadow winner, but I have a bad feeling about this year’s crop…

  4. I’m 50 pages from the end of this. It’s remarkable for a debut novel though like you I don’t see it winning.

  5. I did an interview with Chigozie when The Fishermen was published here, Lisa. I’ll send you the link later (away from home at the moment). Lovely review.

    • Thanks, Amanda, I’ve found the interview and added the link:)

  6. Great review, Lisa. :-) I should love to read this novel.

    Interesting that you mention the conflict between the Christian faith and the residual superstitions beliefs in malevolent spirits with power to influence behaviour. It is a similar situation over here in Ghana. Sometimes I do believe that we as a people (Africans) fear the power of malevolence in our lives more than our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to deliver us from such malevolence.

    I’m curious to know how these boys ended up. From your review, their mother’s response to their troublesome behavior is typical of African mothers who leave everything, even discipline of children to the fathers. We have a saying that it is men who discipline or rear boys. I have three boys and I do not for one single moment rely on their father to discipline them. In my opinion,he rather is soft on them. :-)

    • Oh thank you for your insights into the culture because it really explains mom’s difficulties. Please read the book – I think you will enjoy it.

      • I’d love you to review this book, Celestine, because I am always interested in what I see as a difference between writers writing in their own land, and those who have gone off to America to do a creative writing course and are working there. Even when they write about their homeland, they are seeing it from a distance, filtered by the values of their new home.
        Old religions are surprisingly resilient. On Bali where the people have been Hindu for centuries, there are still places where the old animist religions survive. I remember being very startled when our driver told us that the local volcano had erupted because people had slacked off in making their offerings to appease it. He was an educated man, he had learned science at school and still be believed it was the gods who make volcanoes erupt. And look how religion has survived its suppression under the Soviets and is now thriving in Russia!
        Re men and discipline: Until fairly recently, I think, African men (if we may generalise about a whole continent!) are not that much different to men anywhere else when it comes to discipline. When we were young my mother used to say, ‘wait till your father gets home’, and although he was the gentlest of men, we were always scared when he came home from wherever he’d been on business. I can’t ever remember any repercussions, maybe she didn’t tell him about our mischief, maybe she had forgotten about it by the time he got home!

  7. Hello Lisa and fellow Readers,
    Great book review. I read The Fishermen over the summer. I found the story quite interesting to read. Like the great African literary predecessors, author Chigozie Obioma engages issues of intergenerational suffering, social and political disenfranchisement, cultural mores, etc. I felt great compassion for the brothers’ struggles. I felt that the ending of the novel was too subtle. I didn’t get a sense of how the remaining brothers’ reunion would impact their family and local community. However, Obioma shows promise as a great storyteller like his predecessors Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka.

    • Hello Sonia, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, you are right that Obioma covers all those issues and more. And yes, I also wondered about the ending, but didn’t want to discuss it in the review in case of spoilers.
      I haven’t read Thiong’o yet, but I have Soyinka’s Aké: The Years of Childhood on the TBR.
      If you are in Australia, you might like to vote for your choice of book for the 2016 Radio National African Book Club. There will be 10 books chosen and discussed on air over the year, which is a terrific initiative IMO. See http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/features/african-book-club/

  8. I kept seeing this book on short lists for prizes and became intrigued. I just finished it (it took me a long time to read due to seasonal commitments but I’m pleased in a way that it did as I think reflection helps when reading this book). I found it a fascinating example of family norms and relationships in Nigerian life – it felt very different from my Anglo upbringing (even though I, too, had to wait for my father to get home for punishments). I loved the respect and consideration the boys (generally) gave to their mother and their deference to and dependence on older siblings for their thoughts, actions and identities. I found the narrative style novel and a little challenging. I’m glad I read it.

    • I’m so glad you liked it, I would definitely have it on my Best of 2015 List if I’d included writers from outside ANZ.
      I loved the way the mother talked. I haven’t read enough Nigerian Lit to know if those speech patterns are common or were her own idiosyncratic way of speaking, but I loved reading it like I love reading the lilt of Irish writing.


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