Review: Chigozie Obioma’s ‘The Fishermen’

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book as I picked it for my book club choice as a 2nd or 3rd option when my first two were not available. Also, of course, this is the debut novel from Obioma. However I’ve not been disappointed.

*Contains some spoilers*

The surprising thing about the plot was how early on the climax comes, around halfway through – with the fight between the two eldest brothers. But then it becomes all too clear that this is just one of several terrible, subsequential events that tear this family apart. By the end I was praying that the outcome could be different than what I suspected it would be, but this book is not about happy endings or comforting resolutions. Although there is a sense that some things are resolved by the end. And there is hope in the form of the younger siblings.

There is also hope in the fact that the protagonist, our narrator, has freedom – he is able to think for himself: he is able to see the bigger picture, and he benefits from it… or so we, the reader, hope he will.

One of the most frustrating aspects of our hero is the thing that also allows him to be swept into his own worse fate. He seems unable to fully form his own mind – whenever he tries (and he does try), he usually always squashes his thoughts and feelings, his doubts and misgivings, and sides instead with the the feelings of his brothers, or tries to percieve things the way they do. This is his downfall, but it’s also a natural occurence, for he is only 10 years old and he has three older brothers who have carved the way, have formed their own opinions, and one by one are asked to be leaders of their siblings, to be men of the house in the absence of their father.

And certainly the absence of their father is an hugely influential factor in the downfall of this family. When Ikenna most needs his father, when his wife most needs her husband, when the middle children are unsure who to look to for authority as everything around them changes, he is not there.

Obembe, the protagonist’s (Benjamin) nearest brother, clearly becomes traumatised by what happens to his two elder brothers. But to Ben, who does not seem to trust his own mind (and is certainly afraid to do so) he only sees that his brother “knows more than he does” and therefore he continues to look to him for direction. And this is the heart of the problem in each of the cataclysms that this family undergoes – each time it leaves a brother without an elder brother/father figure from whom to find leadership and support. Thus enabling them to make bad decisions, and fall into an altered and ultimately tragic pattern of thinking.

Obembe cannot see what is slowly becoming clear to Benjamin – that killing Abulu whom he believes to be the spawn of the tragedy that has all but destroyed his family and left him, unwillingly, in the position of responsiblity, is not the path to follow. And we, the reader, although we empathise with Obe’s reasoning, can see that it will only lead to more sorrow for this family.

And, although he does not know it yet, Ben is afraid for his family most of all, before even he is afraid for himself. He is scared of the soldiers hurting his family and THEN he is scared of them hurting him. He is afraid for Obe before he is afraid of being alone. His selfless and unquestioning ways are what ultimately destroy his future. And yet, if he’d been old enough, or had enough encouragement to think for himself, he might have saved his family. But we must remember he is just ten. How hard it is to read a story when it is a ten year old who has so much to learn and understand.

Moving on from the plot I should dwell on the writing – Obioma is a unique new talent and that is clear. For personal reasons I was extremely moved by the way the author described Ikenna’s funeral, in particular the piling of the soil onto the body and the horrible, finiteness of it.

I really enjoyed the bird imagery and metaphors, which so clearly align with our hero, Benjamin, who wanted to be a veterinarian and is fascinated by wildlife. This way of describing the metamorphosing of characters was poignant, it also works well to show how we need to see the world through Ben’s eyes. His understanding is shaped around what he knows and is able to process. The comparison to animals is his way of coping or managing what is happening to him and his family.

One of the most evocative descriptions in the book, is at a point when the reader is feeling such tension in waiting to see if Abulu will be killed. Obembe and Benjamin meet him on the bridge to give him the bread – the smells that Ben lists and describes are endless and utterly disgusting, but it is an incredible example of Obioma’s descriptive language. It is daring; almost brutal but essentially, it is emotive; beautiful; and clever.

This book is compelling, tragic but with some redemption, and it is certainly a fantastic debut from the author. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, an 8 out of 10.

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