The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

I’ve finished my first book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. I’m going to follow Frances’s example and keep my posts on these books short, mostly because of my normal time constraints, which are now compounded by this reading project. I didn’t fall under the spell of this book, which I was hoping to do, especially since I suspect it casts a spell on some of, maybe many of, its readers. I admired it, didn’t love it. It’s self-consciously working in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, so much so that the book becomes a plot point. This means, of course, that I can’t help but compare it to Achebe’s masterpiece and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t live up to it.

The novel tells the story of a family in Nigeria, specifically about four brothers in that family and what happens after they hear a prophecy from a local wandering mad man. The novel can be read as the story of what happens when the father-figure moves away, so about the loss of patriarchal power — the removal of their father leads the boys towards greater and greater rebellion against their mother and against the family rules generally. I’m guessing it’s possible to read the novel as a political fable as well, as a story that gives insight into Nigeria’s history, but I don’t know enough about the subject to say for sure. It’s also about the power of prophecy and of superstitions and folk beliefs and the relationship of these things to Christianity.

I admired how the author handled the point of view, which is from the perspective of the youngest of the four brothers, Benjamin. Seeing the story through his eyes increases the sense of dread and powerlessness that pervades the narrative. The novel has emotional power — there were scenes that made me gasp — but there were also enough moments that seemed awkward or meandering or with unnecessary detail that I kept a certain amount of distance from it as I read. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the tightness of the storytelling in Things Fall Apart, but that’s what happened to me. Still, there’s lots to think about here. Perhaps enough to justify its inclusion in the Booker long list.

And so now it’s time to start my next read, which I think will be A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’m concerned about taking on such a long novel, but as soon as I finish my current audiobook read, I can start listening to some of the books on the long list, including the Anne Tyler and Anne Enright. That way I’ll be able to read two books from the list at once.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

  1. I’m looking forward to reading this one

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  2. Hmm… I haven’t read Things Fall Apart and wonder if that will affect my reading of this–maybe it’ll be better, since I won’t be able to make the comparison.

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  3. buriedinprint

    One of the aspects of this novel which I particularly admired was his use of pacing and I think a good bit of that was his control of Ben’s voice, which you’ve remarked upon as well. Even though much of the story is grim and sad, I never thought about setting it aside; I really did want to know if the prophecy was going to come true and, if so, how that would come about, even when I started to NOT want to know just as much (even, perhaps, more). I’m keen to see what he writes next.

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  4. I felt kind of the same way about this book. Liked it, but didn’t love it. I’d been reading lots of mountaineering and travel books before this, after reading about rich white western gents, the insight into life in Nigeria was an interesting change. Maybe I’ll have to try Things Fall Apart next.

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