RECEIVING a Man Booker Prize nomination is an impressive achievement; getting it for a debut novel is all the more remarkable. The most recent person to achieve this feat is Chigozie Obioma, a promising new voice from Africa, who has made quite an impression on the literary world with his first book, The Fishermen. Set in a small Nigerian town in the 1990s, the tome follows the story of four brothers whose bond is about to be put to the test.
The novel starts as a coming-of-age tale, as we meet Benjamin, the narrator, who is recalling events from his childhood. The fourth of six siblings, he lives in Akure, a city in south-western Nigeria, with his tight-knit family. His mother runs a fresh food store in the open market, while his father is an employee of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who, as proceedings commence, is being transferred to a different city, moving to a region plagued with sectarian violence.
Taking advantage of their father’s absence, the four older brothers — Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Ben — take to fishing at the nearby Omi-Ala River every day after school, ignoring the dark rumours and warnings about the mysterious waters. When their parents discover the boys’ secret activities at the forbidden location, their reaction is stern. Little do they know that the damage has already been done, albeit not in the way anyone would expect.
Things take a biblical turn when it emerges that the town’s vile madman, Abulu, has made a dire prediction about the fate of the eldest brother, Ikenna. Little by little, the prophecy starts to rip the siblings apart, as the family unravels, their aspirations of a brighter future forever shattered. The consequences unfold like a Shakespearian tale, leaving destruction and heartache in their wake.
Obioma’s literary prowess is instantly impressive from the very start of the novel, and his skill of conjuring up imagery is praiseworthy. As he spins this tragic tale, the author paints a vivid picture of ’90s Africa, sketching the environs in considerable detail so that the sights, sounds, and smells of the struggling town come to life as you read each descriptive passage. The brothers’ predicament mirrors the state of a region in social and political shambles, where superstitions still hold power and brothers turn on each other in a Cain and Abel-esque manner.
The book enthusiastically explores its Nigerian roots, with allusions to Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart and references to figures like M.K.O. Abiola, although you’d need basic knowledge of African history, literature, and folklore to fully understand some of these references. The author’s style is both confident and fluid, and The Fishermen, in general, is quite well written. But the novel also inadvertently ends up highlighting the difference between good writing and effective storytelling.
Obioma chooses to revel in beautiful sentences instead of focusing on the characters and their situation, and doesn’t quite realise when to throw similes at the reader and when to refrain and focus on the characters and events in order to add more emotional depth to the proceedings. How things unfurl would have seemed more convincing and less improbable had the thoughts and motives of some of its players — especially Ikenna during his metamorphosis — been relayed more effectively.
The prose is infused with similes and metaphors, some of which are remarkably well-constructed, while others feel a bit forced and awkward. The frequent use of this literary technique starts to feel repetitive as the novel progresses. Add to that the overly explanative descriptions, and the narrative slows down, halting the progress of the tale as the scene is fastidiously set, at times without adding anything essential to the story itself.
The storytelling too takes a circuitous route, with the narrative jumping back and forth in time. As Ben recalls incidents and uses reminiscences to piece together the account, the execution isn’t as seamless as it should be and the result is a tad disjointed. Also, despite the fact that the book wants to touch on important subjects, it doesn’t deliver its themes with enough subtlety to leave us with much to chew on or interpret though the lens of our own imagination.
Despite its shortcomings, The Fishermen is without a doubt an interesting read. The book not only offers a glimpse at African culture, it also highlights its historic complexity, while delivering a moving account of the destructive powers of suspicion, distrust, and revenge. Obioma portrays the consequences intensely, and if you shy away from crudity and violence (especially when it involves children), then this isn’t the right book for you. Even with the repetitiveness of both, the content and style, as well as its tendency to be tediously detailed, The Fishermen still marks a very promising start to Obioma’s career as a novelist. By honing his storytelling skills and polishing his style, the writer is very likely to come up with some remarkable works in the future.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.
By Chigozie Obioma
Little, Brown and Company, US