This year’s Man Booker longlist is heavy on family dramas, and this debut novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma is another to add to that list. And like so many of the other family dramas, this book is perfectly good, competently written, but not special enough to rise above the pack.
The story takes place in the small Nigerian town of Akure. The narrator, 9-year-old Benjamin is the fourth in a family of six children, mostly boys. Their father, who lives away from the family a lot of the time has big dreams for his boys, but the four oldest boys prefer fishing to studying. If that weren’t bad enough, the eldest, Ikenna, has allowed himself to become obsessed by the prophesy of local madman Abulu. As is usual with such prophesies, the prophesy’s existence sets in motion the events that leads to its fulfillment.
After a slow start, the book picks up considerably after the prophesy is fulfilled, and one after another, the brothers succumb to the disaster the prophesy brings. It’s both an epic story and an intimate one, as, much like Macbeth the boys are caught up in the movements of fate. Later in the book, they feel a kinship with Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (which I haven’t read). But the actual drama is largely confined to the family, directly touching only a few others.
In a similar way, the story is also linked to the politics of the 1990s, with the boys having a chance encounter with the politician M.K.O. Abiola, an event that they treat with great importance despite its having little actual impact on their lives. This is a book about people having big ideas but little scope for enacting them. There’s a claustrophobic feeling to the book, made worse by the desire of the characters to be something bigger. In the end, Benjamin’s world becomes almost as small as a world can be.
The writing is of a style that will probably work really well for some readers and put some readers off. I found it perfectly good but rarely great. Obioma makes a lot of use of metaphor, especially animal metaphors, opening most chapters with a simple, declarative statement naming the metaphor that will guide the narrative for that chapter: “Father was an eagle,” “Ikenna was a python,” “Mother was a falconer,” “Boja was a fungus.” Sometimes this imagery works really well, but it doesn’t always add much and sometimes kept me at a distance.
Like so many books on this longlist, this is a perfectly good book. There’s nothing much wrong with it, but there’s nothing much to make me feel enthusiastic about it either. With nine books read for the Shadow WoMan Booker, there are still only three I feel comfortable shortlisting. This could sneak on if the remaining four books aren’t much good, but there are a couple of middlers I think I’d rank higher, but the final shortlist isn’t entirely up to me, which is part of the fun of this project!
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