The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Scribe $29.99)
Review by Russell Eldridge
It’s a heavy burden for 29-year-old shoulders to be lumped with the tag of heir-apparent to your country’s greatest writer.
Chigozie Obioma has this to bear as praise keeps rolling in for his debut novel, The Fishermen.
But at this stage, Obioma has some way to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Man Booker International Prize winner Chinua Achebe, known best for his 1958 masterpiece Things Fall Apart.
Obioma’s The Fishermen references Achebe’s great work overtly through the voice of its narrator, and also in the similarity of the premise. Things Fall Apart focused on the hubris and demise of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a village strongman. The Fishermen has Mr Agwu, whose pride in siring a large batch of children for whom he holds high hopes starts a disastrous chain of events.
But from there, the stories diverge. Things Fall Apart was written while Nigeria was still a British protectorate, and the story had the push towards independence at its heart.
The Fishermen is set in 1996 Nigeria and is a comment on the lost opportunities of Africa’s most populous nation. It is three years since the ‘stolen’ election and the country is under a dictatorship. Nigeria is in Obioma’s words ‘a broken and mucky nation’.
But the political allegory fades behind the unfolding family drama after the narrator’s father leaves to work in another town and the local madman and soothsayer makes a dire prediction about a family member.
The prophecy lends the book the feel of a fable or parable – it has even been likened to Cain and Abel, and of course there’s the Biblical nod to fishers of men.
Obioma dips into familiar magical territory for Nigerian writers (Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road), illustrating the tension between the old and the new, pagan and Christian.
Despite its stylistic tropes, the story is well shaped in Obioma’s skillful hands. The author is no village savant. For all his youth, he has won short story prizes, travelled and lived widely, studied writing in the US and holds a fellowship at the University of Michigan.
All of this explains Obioma’s familiarity with the western novel tradition. But he also retains the freshness of someone writing in a second language. His imagery is original and arresting, but sometimes he misses his target when reaching to the shelf for another unusual metaphor.
Like all good tragedies, there is an air of inevitability about the unravelling of the characters’ lives. But it’s to Obioma’s credit that he keeps us engrossed to the last page. He may be familiar with western writing, but he’s his own man when it comes to how the story unfolds.
This is one of the chief attractions of The Fishermen: Tragedy may have its own irresistible momentum, but this tale is never predictable in the ways we think it might be. This is true, too, in the interactions between the characters, and Obioma shows wonderful skills in keeping his nerve in such an emotionally difficult story.
Surprisingly, the narrator, who is one of the four brothers at the heart of the story, is the palest of the characters. For most of the book he is an almost colourless observer, as though the bolts of power that flash between his older brothers push him into passivity.
But again, the strength of Obioma’s storytelling allows the narrator Ben to grow in stature until he dominates the closing stages of the book.
The Fishermen is an impressive debut novel by a young writer whose voice promises to be heard for years to come.
• Chigozie Obioma will appear at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. He will appear on two panels with Russell Eldridge, whose own novel, Harry Mac, will be launched at the festival.