Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen is a book that has generated a lot of excitement. This tale of siblings in a small Nigerian town has made its way onto the shortlists of the Guardian First Book Award and the prestigious Man Booker Prize and has been met with rave reviews. With this in mind, I was intrigued and excited about reading it.
‘We were fishermen: My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure…’
The novel is centred around four brothers growing up in the small town of Akure in western Nigeria. Narrated by the youngest of these brothers, Ben, the story of their life in the town is told. Their strict father has readymade ambitions for his sons with careers planned out for each of them. However, it becomes more difficult for him to keep an eye on his children’s progress as he starts working in a different town, only visiting every other week. This leaves their mother with her hands full caring for her two younger children along with the running of the home, leaving Ben, Obembe, Boja and Ikenna to their own devices. The brothers decide to go fishing at the Omi-Ala River, a river that is the subject of folklore and much suspicion. A river once known for its fish and clean drinking water had become abandoned, the source of dark rumours – no place for young boys to be.
‘I once heard that when fear takes possession of the heart of a person, it diminishes them.’
The boys’ decision to fish at the forbidden river is the start of a disturbing journey for the family. They encounter Abulu, a local madman who carries a haunting prophecy – one in which the oldest brother will be killed by another. This revelation leaves the close siblings stunned and conflicted and proves to be the catalyst for a series of tragic events that threaten the family’s world. From the very start Obioma’s storytelling is powerful and I was immediately intrigued by the myths and legends that surround the town and the river. The beliefs and superstitions of the characters drive the story forward as the prophecy causes life for Ben and his family to spiral out of control.
‘…he was a mere sparrow who lived in a world of black storms.’
The mythical themes in the story are key to the plot but there is much more to this novel. It also offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the people of Akure. Through one family’s extraordinary story Obioma has provided a fascinating look into life in Nigeria in the 1990’s – society, politics, faith and family. One of the things I enjoyed most was Ben’s narration and seeing how this nine-year old boy viewed the world around him. Several chapters begin with Ben likening a particular person to a particular animal, describing how his family are represented by each creature. This was an interesting way of learning more about each character whilst tying in with the theme of myths and legends.
‘I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.’
I enjoyed reading The Fishermen. It is a novel that is moving, haunting and surprising. It is a story of love and vengeance and the power of stories, the strength of beliefs. This is a fascinating, imaginative debut.