Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel is a coming of age story with Shakespearean overtones. Set in Akure, in south-west Nigeria, The Fishermen follows four brothers, Ikenna, 14, Boja 13, Obembe 11, and Ben, 9, collectively the fishermen of the title, whose tight bond is shattered by the prophecy that the oldest boy will die at the hands of one of his fellows. Narrated by the youngest boy, Ben, two decades on, The Fishermen looks back at an age where promise was squandered, and a family was torn apart by jealousy and revenge.
The boys’ father is a disciplinarian, but essentially a good, hard-working man, with high aspirations for his children. However, after he moves to a different city for work, the boys are left without a constant male influence in their lives. Banding together, they begin walking down to the banks of the Omi-Ala River each day to fish. The river is a taboo location, and when their parents discover them, they are punished. After administering a beating to each boy, their father attempts to pass on a positive message to them. He wants his boys to become important men, not fishermen: ‘I want you to be a group of fishermen who will be fishers of good dreams, who will not relent until they have caught the biggest fish. I want you to be juggernauts, menacing and unstoppable fishermen’. As the oldest, Ikenna is responsible for leading the boys, and setting a positive example; at the same time, though, he is also told in a prophecy that one of his brothers will kill him. Torn between the desire to fulfil his father’s command, and the paranoia bought on by the prophecy, Ikenna begins a course of actions which will tear the close-knit group apart, changing all of their futures.
Broken down, the plot of The Fishermen actually wouldn’t be out of place in a Stephen King novel; we have a band of children in lead roles, and a curse delivered by a mystic vagrant, Abulu, who informs Ikenna that he ‘shall die by the hand of a fisherman’. The location adds to the heightened, supernatural feel of the narrative. The river, Omi-Ala, is a spooky, liminal place, a natural haunt for children at the stage of breaking free from parental constraints. Described as ‘a dreadful river,’ the children have heard ‘accounts of corpses, animal carcasses and other ritualistic materials floating on the surface’. After a murdered woman’s body was found on the riverbank, ‘the town council placed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the river… and the river was abandoned’.
Obioma’s description of Abulu is suitably disturbing; ‘He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls. He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things. He smelt of death’. He is widely reputed to have mystic powers, and although the local people are scared of him, they are also nervous of the potential consequences of driving him out. With his air of corruption and hidden knowledge, he brilliantly represents the dark side of the coming of age story, a primal counterpart to their father’s strict, businesslike approach.
There is a temptation to read The Fishermen as political commentary, with the brothers choosing superstition and conflict over the paternalistic urgings of their father, and Obioma does not shy away from critiquing violence and lawlessness in Nigeria’s cities. Yalo, where the boys’ father is transferred to, was ‘a volatile city with a history of frequent large-scale violence especially against people of our tribe’. The description of their hometown, on the anniversary of the 1993 election uprising, is even more vivid: ‘every year, as this day approached, it seemed as if a band of a thousand invisible surgeons, armed to the teeth with knives, trephines, needles and extraordinary anaesthetic materials, came with the influx of the north wind and settled in Akure. Then at night-time, while the people slept, they would commit frantic, temporal lobotomy of their souls… the people would wake up with bodies sodden with anxiety, hearts pulsating with fear, heads drooping with the memory of loss’. Parallels can be drawn between the tragic fate of the father, who sees his aspirations for the boys collapse in front of his eyes, and the fate of political leaders such as MKO Abiola, who was a totemic figure for the children.
The plotting and structure are well-handled, and there is continuity in the way that each chapter begins with an anthropomorphic assessment of a particular character. At times the writing is a little florid (‘Crumbs of information began to fall from Mother’s soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird’) but generally Obioma’s style suits the heightened consciousness of the storytelling. The Fishermen works equally well as tragedy or allegory, and mixes the supernatural with the vividly real to strong effect. While the novel fits in to a tradition starting with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is acknowledged through references in the text, there is much more to The Fishermen than pastiche, and it is pleasing to see a debut novel of this ambition receiving international attention through the Booker Prize shortlisting.
Any Cop?: Obioma’s debut novel is an intriguing twist on the coming of age story. It might not quite be Booker-winning quality, but it deserves the attention coming its way.