Friday Reads – The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Well, on Tuesday the winner of the Man Booker prize was announced – Marlon James won with A Brief History of Seven Killings (my review at link). An incredibly worthy winner and I have to say, as much as I wanted A Little Life to win, I had a feeling that A Brief History would swap the judges. As a result there are loads of interviews doing the rounds with Marlon James and I can’t wait to listen to them, read them, and learn more about the book and the man. I think I will have to re-read it.

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With the announcement of the winner, we are coming to the end of my project to read and blog about all of the Man Booker longlist. I did read them all before the shortlist was announced, and have three reviews left to write. Book posts are going to become every fortnight instead of every Friday. I have absolutely loved this project – it gave me fantastic books to read for a few months and since I’ve been done I have felt a bit lost, unsure of what to read. I have gone a week without even picking up a single book! But without further ado……

This is the my final review of a Booker shortlist book – The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.

In his exploration of the mysterious and the murderous, of the terrors that can take hold of the human mind, of the colors of life in Africa, with its vibrant fabrics and its trees laden with fruit, and most of all in his ability to create dramatic tension in this most human of African stories, ­Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.

The New York Times

Chigozie Obioma-The Fisherman

The Fishermen, set amongst a middle class family in Nigeria, tells the story of four brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin. Their father has large dreams for the four and their baby sister – he is a moderniser, a champion of education – but he moves away to work, leaving the children in charge of their mother. As children do, they push the limits of what they can get away with, moving on from computer games within the house to football outside and smashing neighbours windows, fights with other boys, and fishing in the river near their home. It’s forbidden and supposedly dangerous, and therefore exciting – the river, once supplying the local people with fish and drinking water, is now choked up with sewage. One day, returning from the river, they happen upon the local madman, who gives them a prophecy: that Ikenna will die, killed by a “fisherman“. Ikenna takes this to mean that one of his brothers will kill him.

And thus the story develops, a close look into sibling rivalry as the brothers attempt to come to terms with the prophecy, to deal with the fear and the guilt the prophecy has settled on them, the narrative arc of the story taking some unexpected turns and with a shocking and heartbreaking climax that left me open mouthed in surprise.

The moment of the prophecy seems to echo Ikenna’s entry into the teenage world, leaving behind childhood, grappling with that as well as his fear of the prophecy, shouting at his parents, disappearing without saying where he was going, not eating, pushing his brothers away. Tensions grow within the family and the dynamics all change. And then there is that shocking, heartrending  moment, and then the unexpected, hopeful ending – and I will say no more about the plot.

There is some incredible, wonderful imagery in the book – here are a few choice quotes:

He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic region and armpits. He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and waste.

The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying [Ikenna’s] mind with the ferocity of madness, pulling down paintings, breaking walls, emptying cupboards, turning tables until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray.

Hatred is a leech: The thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit. It changes a person, and does not leave until it has sucked the last drop of peace from them.

Despite the shocking events (sorry, I am over-using shocking, but I am just trying hard not to give anything away!), there is no wrong or right, no blame, and even by the end of the book, no justice. Even the madman who gives the prophecy is not depicted as in any way dangerous. To the reader he is more pitiful, masturbating in public, eating rotten food from rubbish bins, a tragic history. There are no answers in this book – in that way it is slightly like A Little Life, in which yes, there is someone clearly to blame, but there are no answers.

It’s told through the voice of the youngest brother, Benjamin, both as an uncomprehending child and as an adult looking back, and from literary perspective it is fantastic from the way it weaves together so many different styles: a Aristotelian tragedy (in which hubris – in this case, of the father who dreams that his children will become lawyers, doctors, engineers – causes downfall), a 19th century Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story), a mythological story (with its proverbs, prophecies and repetitions), and it is very much a modern story, with its computer games and footballs. It has, of course, been seen as a political allegory for Nigeria, but for me it was much too personal, familial a novel, to be categorised so neatly. From a non-literary perspective, all of this makes it a really gripping, enjoyable and affecting read.

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