“The Fishermen”, by Chigozie Obioma, takes place in 1996 in Akure Nigeria and tells the tragic story of the Agwu family amidst a changing Nigeria. A first novel short listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, The Fishermen revolves around 4 brothers. The story begins with the transfer of their disciplinarian father to the town of Yola, more than 1000 kilometers from Akure. The remainder of the family stays in Akure and that is when things begin to fall apart.
The story is narrated by the youngest of the four brothers, Ben, looking back 20 years after his father’s transfer, when life as he knew it changed forever. “Whenever I think of our story, how that morning would mark the last time we’d live together, all of us, as the family we’d always been, I begin–even these two decades later–to wish he hadn’t left, that he had never received that transfer letter.”
At the beginning of the novel the four brothers are virtually inseparable. Almost the first thing the brothers do after their father’s transfer to Yola is go fishing at the Omi-Ala river, where they have been forbidden to go. “We knew our parents would severely punish us if they ever found out we were going to the river.” The Omi-Ala river is a symbol of everything dark and evil in Akure. “Omi-Ala was a dreadful river…It became the source of dark rumours. One such rumour was that people committed all sorts of fetish rituals at its banks. This was supported by accounts of corpses, animal carcasses and other ritualistic materials floating on the surface of the river or lying on its banks.”
While returning from the river one day, the boys meet a town madman who is said to have the gift of prophecy. The madman recounts a vision he has for the eldest of the brothers and after that the lives of the family start to unravel in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reader follows the boys from innocent childhood to the stark realities of a volatile and violent time. While Ben looks back at the events that occurred 20 years previous, he provides a glimpse into the politics, religion, superstition and environment of 1990s Nigeria. We learn about the vigilante style of justice that still took hold at that time in descriptions of school discipline, mob protests and petty disagreements. Ben introduces us to M.K.O. Abiola when the brothers meet him in 1993 as he is running for president of Nigeria. He then takes us through the bloody riots in June of 1993 when the military regime annulled the results of a presidential election. We see extreme poverty, conventional and superstitious religion, and love, depravity and intolerance.
Although the book is a moving and thoughtful story of a family interwoven with historic events, the book does feel like a first novel. In places Obiomo’s language is forced and tortured. For instance, when looking back on Ben’s father’s hopes and dreams for his sons, Obioma writes: “And for many years, he’d carried his bag of dreams. He did not know that what he bore all those days was a bag of maggoty dreams…” And describing the frailty of Ben’s mother, he writes “I wondered at the sight of her, if this horrible place sucked out the flesh of human beings and deflated large buttocks.” In another example of painful prose, he describes a sunset as “faint as a nipple on the chest of a teenage girl a distance away.” These sorts of sophomoric descriptions are painful to read and suggest a certain lack of maturity.
Despite the inconsistency in his writing, Obioma shows promise as a novelist and hopefully his next novel will reflect his growth and maturity.
If you are interested in trying it out, the book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11154633?lang=eng.