Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, Reviewed by Sally Wylie

Little, Brown and Company, 2015. Available from Chapters-Indigo here.

With his debut novel, The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma has given us a coming-of-age story of a close-knit, middle class family in Akure, Nigeria in the mid-1990s.

The story begins innocently with Benjamin and his three brothers sneaking off to go fishing against their father’s wishes and living for the moment with the supreme conviction they will never be discovered.  But, they choose to go fishing off the forbidden riverbanks of Omi-ala.  On the thorn-infested narrow path to the river, they are betrayed by vicious scratches across their legs.  It is not the only portent of what is to come.

When their father comes home and finds out about their defiance of his wishes, he takes them each aside, lectures them and beats them but then tells the boys he admires their spirit.  He says that he wants them to become a different kind of fisherman:  a banker, lawyer, doctor—fishermen of good dreams.  It seems as if the family balance has been restored. But has it?  What the boys have sworn never to tell their parents was the horror of that day. While down at the filthy river, Abulu, the grizzled, crazed, local madman cast a net of prophecy over them saying that one of them will kill the other.

Chigozie Obioma
Abulu’s rant and the boys’ internalization of the prophecy reverberate through their family causing death and a chain of tragic events. Finally, gentle Benjamin decides it is time to act. Even the plans of his father to send him and his brother to Canada won’t dissuade him from seeking revenge upon the madman who cursed his family and brought about its ruin. 

The madman “had established in him the unquestionable inescapability of Abulu’s prescient powers, causing smoke to rise from things yet unburned.” 

Obioma’s lyrical style pulls us into the story that drips with terrifying smells, tropical sights and eerie sounds that remind us that even though this is a story of contemporary Africa, wild spirits and beasts still rustle and rule in the dark. Before we know it, we are looking for leeches, smelling the decay of putrid waters, and hearing the fear in Benjamin’s voice as he confronts his brothers.

The author describes well, but not in a blatant way, the culture in Nigeria. The reader learns how the various tribes speak amongst themselves, the corruption of the politicians, the contradictions between the church and old superstitions and how they illuminate Nigeria’s complexity.

I emailed Obioma, saying: “Today I just finished The Fishermen.  Yours is one of a long list of amazing African writers I love to read such as Chimamamda Adichie's books, specifically, Half of a Yellow Sun,  and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which you refer to often in your book...” I congratulated him on being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  I was surprised when I received his gracious reply!

Sally Wylie has published textbooks in early childhood, but after Brian's writing classes, she's happy to finally be writing fiction for young children and YA.

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  1. He is simply a great writer, story teller and artist - by any standard. I am sitting at the edge of my seat waiting, with bated breath to see what he comes up with next.

  2. This book is excellent. Vey well written.It reminds me of The Kite Runner because of the beautiful, insightful language and insights.Like Kite Runner, this book provides a personal, moving account of a culture that most people know little about. Africa, to most Americans, is still a huge blank spot on the map and the location of Nigeria could not be more vague, let alone it's culture and history. For this alone, the book is a great read, but there is a lot more to it.

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