The Fishermen

FishermenThis 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!

Other Shadow Panel Reviews: Of Books and Bicycles

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10 Responses to The Fishermen

  1. Denise says:

    Oh no not another competent but unexciting Man Booker nominee :-( It makes me feel a bit depressed :-( (Or perhaps I ought to get out more.)

  2. Anokatony says:

    This is the first so-so review I’ve read of ‘The Fishermen’; the others seemed to praise it only. I’m going to read it to decide if it might be that elusive Booker winner.

    • Teresa says:

      Even though I didn’t love it, I would not be at all surprised if it won the Booker. It seems to combine a lot of elements of the other nominees–family story, international, spare prose, realism, grim story. And it doesn’t make any big missteps. There was just something about it that kept me at a distance.

      • Anokatony says:

        I suppose the reason I quit The Fishermen was a combination of having a child narrator along with the severe beatings the father gave his sons for their fishing. I just wasn’t interested in an overly simplistic somewhat primitive story. The two novels I read previously by Otessa Moshvegh and Sofi Oksanen both were much more adult viewpoints.

  3. I…yeah, didn’t love The Fishermen either. I wanted to but I did not. Because I am always saying I want to have way more African literature getting published in America, I feel this silly obligation to be fond of ALL AFRICAN AUTHORS FOREVER. (I know that is silly.)

    • Teresa says:

      I know just what you mean! I tell myself that I can be glad this book exists and want more like it for those who would enjoy it, while preferring to spend my reading time on African authors I already love or African authors I don’t know yet if I love. (And I liked this enough to be willing to try another of his if it gets good reviews from sources I trust.)

  4. Pingback: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (read by Chukwudi Iwuji) | The Sleepless Reader

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