Chigozie Obioma’s critically acclaimed first novel fell into my radar when it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize last year and won the Guardian First Book Prize among many others. He’s also been dubbed ‘the heir to Chinua Achebe’ by The New York Times- A hefty claim which I quickly discovered was not at all unfounded.
‘The Fishermen’ is a story about an Igbo family living in Akure (a yoruba speaking town in southern Nigeria) in the 90s. There are 6 children however the focus is on the four older brothers Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin whose ages range from 15 to 9 respectively. Benjamin is our first person narrator who, as an adult, is reflecting on the events that unfolded at that time. When the father (Mr Agwu) an employee of the Central Bank of Nigeria has to relocate for work leaving the family behind, the four boys unbeknownst to their mother take up fishing at the Omi Ala river, thus opening themselves up to a world of intrigue with harrowing consequences.
It is an intelligently executed exploration of how what we believe can affect our lives, especially in a setting rife with superstition, mysticism, intrigue, cultural dogma and religion. Religious allusions and the Political atmosphere are heavily represented throughout the book in several ways. I particularly loved that. The representation M.K.O Abiola from the children singing to him when they meet him to how they treasure their MKO calendar, is genius. I recently read an article by Turkish Writer Elif Shafak where she contends that writers from certain parts of the world (like Turkey and Nigeria amongst others) do not have the luxury of being apolitical. According to her ‘Politics to us is what the weather is to the English. We are surrounded, gripped and repeatedly depressed by it.’ I completely agree with her and really admire how Obioma manages to paint the political landscape in Nigeria through a nine – year old child’s eyes.
Chigozie Obioma use of poignant details, accurate metaphors and vivid surprising turns of phrase show his mastery of storytelling. Occasionally I found the explanations he attached to certain words or phrases unnecessary, if even a little jarring. I just felt some of them were things a reader, unfamiliar with Nigerian culture, could easily look up. Beyond that, I found the book faultless.The effectiveness of the humour employed is pretty outstanding, bearing in mind that its a work of literary fiction with a grim, fairly disturbing plot. He manages to maintain tone without sacrificing the integrity of any of the characters. The humour in this book actually reminded me of the book ‘I do not come to you by chance’ by Adaobi Tricia Nwubani – a truly hilarious read.
‘The Fishermen’ gives an insight to an aspect of West African culture that some foreigners will struggle to accept as plausible even though it is as commonplace to us as paint on walls. We are a culture of believers, whether in religion or traditional or superstitions. I’m glad Obioma boldly explores this in the context of brotherhood and togetherness. There are so many stunning details in the book from the three languages that are employed in the narrative –English, Igbo and Yoruba and how that gives the reader a clearer sense of tone and character to the animal titled and themed chapters of the book. Also, the main characters which happen to be children are handled exquisitely, they are not unbelievably precocious or caricatures of a child. Benjamin’s trustworthy narrative voice sets the tone for this very well.
I liked this book a lot. Actually, I’m a little obsessed with it and will highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it. I will go so far as to say this is the best work of modern African literary fiction I have read from any of his contemporaries. This is a book that needed to be written and not just because it redefined its genre in a sense. Its a book that has inspired me personally and is simply an immense joy to read.