Those the gods have chosen to destroy, they inflict with madness.
Well folks, 2021 is off to a great start. I finished reading my first book of the year, which is an impressive feat seeing as I barely read five books in 2020. I read a book, full-stop and that is something to celebrate given my attachment to all my screens. A dear friend gifted me The Fishermen for Christmas and it was a very lovely present indeed.
The Fishermen is the debut novel by Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma. Set in the mid 90s in Akure, a town in Western Nigeria, it follows four young brothers who take advantage of their strict father’s work transfer to a distant city and subsequent absence from home to become fishermen. Unbeknownst to their parents, the brothers and their friends go fishing at the forbidden Omi-Ala river for six weeks, catching fishes and tadpoles. On one of these trips, they encounter Abulu the local madman who predicts that the oldest boy will be killed by a fisherman, which the boy interprets to mean one of his brothers. This prophecy sets off a tragic chain of events that wrecks the family and changes them irreparably.
The writing is so good. The story is told from the first person point of view of nine year old Benjamin, the youngest of the four brothers (who by the way have two additional siblings who are too young to meaningfully impact the story). Each chapter begins with a statement-a metaphor or simile comparing one thing to another- before then poetically expanding on the statement. Specifically, each member of the family is likened to an animal, usually a bird, and then the writer describes how that person embodies that animal’s characteristics. Two examples:
“Mother was a falconer:
The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her children. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm.”
Hatred is a leech:
The thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit. It changes a person, and does not leave until it has sucked the last drop of peace from them. It clings to one’s skin, the way a leech does, burrowing deeper and deeper into the epidermis, so that to pull the parasite off the skin is to tear out that part of the flesh, and to kill it is self-flagellating.
Flashback is liberally used in the book; most of the pivotal moments are presented in flashbacks, and I did not mind this. I particularly enjoyed the way he wrote about the past and then connected them to present events. The writer’s descriptions are vivid! There is one scene where he describes the various smells of the madman and it was tough to read. I swear I could smell it. Ugh. He seamlessly wove in the political unrest of Nigeria in the late 90s: Sani Abacha, MKO Abiola, the 93 elections; and there are also references to the Nigerian Civil War.
This is the first book in a while that moved me and elicited a myriad of emotions. Actually that’s not true; I do in fact get too caught up in books and films, and I get so annoyed for the duration- but it is usually the stupidity of the characters and foolishness of the plot and silliness of the writing that gets my goat. In The Fishermen, however I was moved by the writer’s masterful skill in creating drama and suspense. I had my heart in my mouth several times and gasped out loud a few times. The sense of impending doom is heavy throughout the book, right from the moment of the prophecy. I felt so bad for the family as they became undone, one by one. It was fascinating watching Ikenna- the oldest brother- slowly deteriorate physically and mentally as he became engulfed in this cloud of fear and suspicion brought on by the prophecy.
I once heard that when fear takes possession of the heart of a person, it diminishes them. This could be said of my brother, for when the fear took possession of his heart, it robbed him of many things-his peace, his well-being, his relationships, his health, and even his faith.
I didn’t read the synopsis at the back of the novel, so as not to ruin the suspense even a little, so I was unaware of the prophecy until I read it. Even after the prophecy was revealed and the reader could guess what was going to happen, it was still a thrill getting there.
The book may not be for everyone, but I personally could find no faults. Quite a few people have compared this to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is actually referenced in the novel. Perhaps it’s because Things Fall Apart was in a rural colonial setting but I did not see the similarities. The feeling I felt while reading The Fishermen is similar to the feeling I felt when I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie- just pure happiness and excitement at such beautiful writing, and the discovery of a new author. Similar to Purple Hibiscus, I found the end a tad confusing and I have a few questions. Still, this did not at all diminish the wonder of the book and I am glad to have read it.
Chigozie Obioma is a gifted storyteller and the story he tells is beautiful and rich. I am effusive in my praise because that’s how I felt while reading it. I searched online for reviews and to my pleasure they are largely positive, mostly echoing my own thoughts. The Fishermen deserves all the accolades. A book I won’t forget any time soon, and I will be checking out the writer’s other work.