Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is an impressive, heart-breaking novel. The story is told by Benjamin of the Agwu family. Benjamin has three older brothers and a younger brother and sister. They live in the small town of Akure, Nigeria. When their father leaves for a position with a city bank, the four older boys take advantage of his absence to skip school and go fishing with their friends. They fish in the Omi-Ala River even though the river is considered cursed by villagers and is off limits since it carries animal carcasses and has soaked in the blood of dismembered human remains. When Abulu, the village madman, makes the dire prediction that the eldest boy will be murdered by one of his siblings, the bond between the brothers begins to unravel. The family suffers one tragedy after another—hallucinations, nervous breakdowns, superstitions, vengeance, suicide, and imprisonment.
Benjamin describes the Omi-Ala river as once being so pristine, the villagers worshipped it and used it for fishing and as a clean source of drinking water. But then the villagers polluted it, defiled it, and, abetted by Christian missionaries, eventually associated it with evil, rejected it, and heaped condemnation on it. The river can be seen as a metaphor for Nigeria, a once pristine land destroyed by its inhabitants and internecine warfare fueled by colonial influence.
Set against the warring factions in Nigeria in the mid-1990s, the novel is told in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, weaving political unrest with the demise of the Agwu family. In vivid, lurid detail, Benjamin describes the squalor of the village—the filth, rats, piles of human and animal excrement in dirt roads, violence, corruption, brutality, and human carcasses that litter the streets. His parents try to hold the family together, but in the father’s absence, the mother cannot control her sons. Ikenna, the eldest, gradually distances himself from his siblings, believing Abulu’s prediction that one of his brothers will kill him. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to tragic consequences for the entire family. The novel explores the concept of the efficacy of prophecy—how much is actually prophetic (an accurate prediction of the future) and how much becomes prophetic only because we believe it and, therefore, will it to happen.
In beautiful and at times eloquent language, Obioma has written a heart-wrenching novel that chronicles a series of disasters befalling the Agwu family. Seen initially through the eyes of the nine-year old Benjamin, we witness his struggle to make sense of a deteriorating situation and of his desperate need for the acceptance and love of his older siblings. The novel is rich in detail, the characters believable and well-crafted. The novel has the feel of a Greek tragedy as Obioma increases the tension by skillfully dropping clues to indicate this will not end well. We are embroiled in the welfare of this family and become transfixed as the narrative climbs to its inexorable and tragic climax.
Although the novel ends in a somewhat hopeful note, it is not essentially a “feel good” novel. It tells a compelling story, imbued with mythic and tragic overtones, told in clear and eloquent prose of a family and country in crisis.
This is a remarkable achievement for a debut novel and highly recommended.