Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

the fishermen book review The Fishermen [2015] – ★★★★

The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”

This debut book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, is set in a quiet neighbourhood of Akure in Nigeria in the 1990s and centres on four young brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) whose lives change when their father gets a job transfer to another city and they hear a prophecy made about the death of one of them. Though the parents plan a big future for each and every one of their sons, they soon have to confront unimaginable horrors as the brothers take their fishing nets and hooks and head down to a local river. Steeped in local superstition and African folklore, The Fishermen explores the relationship between brothers from an interesting perspective, and, although it may be dragging its narrative for its first half, by the end, the book strangely redeems itself to become a story with a purpose and a conviction.

We get to know the story from the point of view of Benjamin, who is the youngest of the four brothers (there are also in the Agwu family a boy named David, who is three and a girl Nkem, who is one year old). When their father starts to live in another city for work, the brothers immediately start to challenge their mother’s authority in the house, and things spiral out of control when they start to hang out and be “fishermen” near the local river – Omi-Ala. It is there that they meet and become entranced by the local “madman” Abulu, who has a message for one of the brothers. Abulu, who is known in town for his accurate predictions, prophesises that Ikenna, the oldest of the brothers, will be killed by one of his own siblings, and it is at this point that the rift between the brothers appears. If before the brothers led a carefree childhood, they had to grow up fast afterwards: “we gave little thought to past events. Time meant nothing back then. The days came with clouds hanging in the sky filled with cupfuls of dust in the dry seasons, and the sun lasting into the night…all that mattered was the present and the foreseeable future. Glimpses of it mostly came like a locomotive train treading tracks of hope, with black coal in its heart and a loud elephantine toot” [Obioma, 2015: 21].

The Fishermen seems to drag in its first half, mulling the same idea and event – how the prophecy affected Ikenna and how he became a rebellious type in the family, disobeying the strict regulations that his father laid down. Pages and pages are taken by this same message of Ikenna growing increasingly violent and difficult to handle, and we are forced to wonder again and again “how far the venom in Ikenna had travelled”. To make matters worse, Obioma does not seem to believe his reader got the desired message and idea because he tends to repeat the same thing on the same page over and over again – but using different words. Half-way through the book, one even begins to wonder whether there is a story here at all, and if you start to read this book almost at its middle mark, you hardly missed a thing, but the fact that one brother is becoming increasingly distant from others because of one prophecy.

Thankfully, there is a second and more unexpected part to The Fishermen. If the first half of the book has been “asleep”, the second is more or less full of action, and we see that action shifting from one brother to the next in a rapid succession. Each of the brothers has a different way of dealing with the prophecy and what it caused, and we see the curious chain of reaction unfolding. It is often the belief in, one’s reaction to and the effect of, words, rather than mere words themselves, that have consequences, and the brothers experience this phenomenon first hand. That certainty of something that springs in the mind then has the likelihood of being realised in reality.

The book explicitly references Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart [1958], as well as tries to draw attention to the difficult political situation of the time, for example to local violence and vigilantism alongside a prominent Nigerian politician MKO Abiola’s infamous presidential campaign. The brothers become almost anti-heroes caught in the (spider-)web of their own making. Some messages that the author undoubtedly wanted to get across, such as those on mental health and criminal justice, got lost along the way, but Obioma’s language certainly did not, and leaves quite an impression while it evokes nature and animals: “he spoke in spurts as if his words were tropical grasshoppers that flew out of his mouth” or “crumbs of information began to fall from Mother’s soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly plumed bird”. This poetic tinge to the words makes the very simple story rather different and mythical, and the dreamy language makes us more willing to accept the unbelievable happening in the story: “Hatred is a leech”; “Hope was a tadpole”; “Boja was a fungus”; “Mother was a falconer”; “Abulu was a madman”; “Ikenna was a python”; “Father was an eagle”; and “Omi-Ala was a dreadful river”.

The way of life of the Igbo people is also more than hinted at, and we learn that families in the region speak both Yoruba and English at home, while referencing aspects of the tradition when bringing up their children: “although Christianity had almost cleanly swept through Igbo land, crumbs and pieces of the African traditional religion had eluded the broom. Stories came from time to time from our village from clansmen in diasporas, about mysterious mishaps – even deaths, owing to punishments from the gods of the clan”.

The Fishermen may have a simple story at the heart of it, but it is also suffused with a strange power that holds our attention, while the book explores the power of suggestion, belief and brotherly love, providing a fascinating cultural insight.


10 thoughts on “Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

    1. I was still curious where it was all going, even though it seems that I should have started near the middle to save myself time. It seems that the author decided to pile one horror on top of another and call it a day 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review! I read Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities last year and it sounds like it has some similar style and theme to this one. I did find that one hard to get through so I’m not eager to jump in to more from Obioma but you’ve done a good job of highlighting its successes here!

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    1. Thanks. I guess I am always curious about the quality of successful debuts in particular since those are the ones that sometimes propel someone to recognition, and I often wonder what they have managed to fit into them 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great review! I had wanted to read this book, but then I found myself so disappointed with Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities last year that I was no longer sure whether to bother. It sounds like the writing style is very similar between the two, with a slow start and lots of repetition followed by action at the end, though the synopses seem very different. The idea of the prophecy and the four brothers driven apart by it does intrigue me, and the fact that you found it worthwhile even after a rather useless first half is encouraging! Maybe I will still give this one a try eventually.

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    1. Thank you! I think The Fishermen is worth reading, even if you did not enjoy that much the author’s second book. Since it was Obioma’s debut, I had the feeling he had much to prove and wanted this book to be memorable and poignant. It is not a perfect book, but I thought it had some very good elements and at times did come together rather nicely.

      I know about An Orchestra of Minorities, but I know little about the plot. I have now read first lines of the synopsis, and it looks like a modern take on Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, but set in Cyprus, with the main character having high aspirations and intentions, wanting to rise above his societal position, only for them not be realised.

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      1. Thanks for the insight! Perhaps I would get on better with The Fishermen after all.

        I did actually like the premise of Orchestra, the main issues I had were with the repetitive writing and some unfortunate characterization. It’s been advertised as a sort of modern take on The Odyssey, which didn’t quite fit for me, but I think Jude the Obscure is perhaps a better comparison! I suspect you would enjoy Orchestra more than I did, especially if you are able to look past the overwriting to appreciate the underlying story. That’s a good point about an author having something to prove with a debut, although I did have the sense that even the writing in Orchestra was trying to be more “grand” than it really needed to be. That’s probably a matter of opinion though!

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        1. I think you are very right about Obioma’s writing. I guess I did see all his good intentions and that made me overlook his incessant repetition in the first half. Like you now, I was very attracted to the idea of the four brothers and the prophecy in this one. I am very interested in how literature explores the relationship between brothers or siblings (the book I am about to review now – The Silent Cry – makes such relationship a central topic too), so I probably will need to take a long break before investing in another plot – in An Orchestra of Minorities.

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