The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
|The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Liz Green|
|Summary: A beautifully observed account of childhood cut short in 1990s Nigeria.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 299||Date: February 2015|
Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize
This book is essentially a cautionary family tale of four brothers and the way they react to a prophecy about them by the local madman. It is also, in a sense, a coming-of-age story where Ben, the young narrator, is plunged into premature adulthood under the most brutal of circumstances. And it is about brotherly love. None of these descriptions, however, convey the fact that this book is written by an exciting new voice in African literary fiction.
Obioma paints an astonishingly vivid picture of life in a Nigerian town in the 1990s. The book references rather than focuses on war, civil disturbance, dictatorships, riots and crime while day-to-day Nigerian life, and the machinations of family and the surrounding community, are evident in every scene. There is that strange mix of sibling rivalry and hero worship of the older boys by their younger brothers. There is the gradual unravelling of the family as Ikenna, the bold eldest brother, is irretrievably stripped of his strength as he falls prey to the insidious nature of suspicion.
The plot itself is simple - a straight narrative from cause to effect, with little in the way of sub-plot. But what Obioma lacks in subplot he more than makes up for in narrative detail. Indeed, it is this detail that is the abiding strength of the novel and the masterstroke of the author. He inserts, almost as an aside, details that might make you laugh, or cry, or simply smile in surprise. The various characters switch between different languages (one of the boys has to say the word scientist in English because there is no Igbo word for it). There is the mix of cultures so typical of many African countries - the boys watch a Yoruba soap opera and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo on the television; neighbours steal water from their well during the dry season. A politician bestows upon four boys he has just met scholarships paid for by his election campaign organisation. And, constantly, there is a mix of Christianity and superstition.
And the book is beautifully written. Obioma's observation skills are second to none and some of his images are superb: Want and lack exploded in their minds like a grenade and left shrapnel of desperation in its wake. Some images are repeated as a mini-leitmotif: the depiction of spiders as the beasts of grief when catastrophe strikes is resumed towards the end of the novel when further tragedy befalls the family.
The simple plot makes the novel something of a slow burner. You might find the first half less gripping than the second, and at times you might be forgiven for wanting action over imagery and description. But persevere. It is never really a plot-driven story but the writing more than makes up for this and the action, when it does come, is shocking and viscerally sad. Read it slowly, savour the writing, enjoy.
For a look at a different type of childhood in another African country, have a look at The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe is a set of autobiographical essays by a Nigerian author, including sections on Nigerian history and culture.
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