In the blurb on the back cover of The Fishermen, New York Times suggests that ‘Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.’ I read Things Fall Apart years ago and loved it: it was the archetypal ‘modern’ African novel and the title comes from a wonderful W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.
Achebe died three years ago and, if there is a second coming, there would be no more deserved nominee than Obioma. But comparisons can be irritating. Obioma is a brilliant novelist in his own right and his story The Fishermen is ripe with the themes and tensions which make a great story crackle.
The narrator is Ben, one of four brothers who are the central protagonists, although the family has two younger siblings. We quickly understand the boys’ characters, hierarchy, rivalry and filial loyalty. Obioma transports us to a Nigeria we assimilate very quickly due to the power of his visual imagery and his ability to evoke the family relationships, local characters and the vibrant sounds of nature around their compound.
The story takes wings when the brothers go fishing in a local river and a madman, Abulu, prophesies that Ikenna, the oldest brother, will be killed by one of his siblings. Despite their strong bond, the boys’ loyalty is challenged and events unfold and things really do fall apart.
Ben’s narrative is fast paced and one chapter’s haunting and harrowing events lead to another. The story is set in 1990s Nigeria and Obioma shows us a background of social disintegration and change. There is a strong sense of the Nigerian cultural belief in faith, prophecy and myth. Ben’s strict father does all in his power to control and stabilise his family’s future but, on their doorstep, there is a wild madman who masturbates in public, rapes a corpse and fries refuse in a wok. The central role of the family is clearly established and then broken apart. Ben’s close-knit unit which once held so much promise and hope is challenged and fractured by a sequence of unavoidable consequences: the tension is palpable and thrilling.
The story is poignant but there is no excessive sentiment. Ikenna’s fate is played out and events are set in motion in a way which can’t be avoided and each brother’s story, in turn, becomes a central focus. The novel deals with Ben’s rites of passage and of him coming to terms with dilemmas which face us all: the central unavoidable question is, where does loyalty end and vengeance begin?
In chapter after chapter – and I won’t create spoilers – every member of Ben’s family is deeply affected by what happens to Ikenna and consequences heap on former consequences to create tragedy and a shocking story which makes the novel hard to put down.
Obioma’s style is always evocative, clear and never indulgent. He writes with the lucid understanding of the changing world through the eyes of a growing boy, but there is always a rich landscape of characters and setting which brings the context of modern Nigeria into sharp focus. The story accelerates with perpetual breathlessness towards a thrilling ending and it is beautifully told and always credible.
This is Obioma’s first novel and I loved it from cover to cover. It is richly imaginative, with an original voice and it’s a gripping read. Goodreading Magazine has called it ‘African Kite Runner’: I assume this is because Obioma’s ability to weave a haunting story is, like Khaled Hosseini’s, powerful and it makes for a stunning read. I will buy all of his books.