In the running for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction was Nigerian author and Professor of Creative Writing; Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen. Written whilst experiencing a period of home-sickness as a college student in Cyprus, Obioma’s novel is a dense and impactful tale which hosts myriad themes, not least the matter of family and sibling relationships. In The Fishermen we see 1990’s Nigeria through the eyes of young Benjamin, the fourth child in a family of six siblings. In the absence of their strict, whip-wielding father, the four eldest children take the opportunity to adventure by fishing on the banks of the Omi-Ala River. After one of their fishing trips, they encounter a madman by the name of Abulu who prophesises that one of the brothers will be murdered at the hands of another. From this point, the relationships between the family members begin to change.
Obioma fills the 300 or so pages of his novel with a wide variety of themes and metaphors along with this intriguing plot without the book feeling crammed or over-saturated. At times, The Fishermen reads not unlike a classic Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, complete with tragically flawed victims and the inevitable fulfilling of prophecy. This feature constitutes the first half of the novel. The second half explores the aftermath of these events and their effects on the remaining family.
The tone of the second half of the novel undergoes a slight shift as the plot evolves and the mind-set of the other siblings becomes evident. The novel moves on to address issues of loss and vengeance. Obioma displays the ways in which one prophecy or curse can begin the destruction of a whole family and Benjamin’s acute observations of the people around him and how they cope with the events that occur earlier on, delivered through further powerful imagery, are particularly striking.
I have come to believe that that confrontation was the needle that poked her psychic wound and it started bleeding from that day… When agitated, words often sprang like tigers from her mouth.
The strongest and most apparent metaphor presents itself frequently throughout the book: at the beginning of almost every chapter, Benjamin introduces each person as represented by an animal. By this means, there is a delicate and beautiful description of each character and their relationship with others in the tale. Each chapter can be read individually as a sort of in-depth portrait, whilst also combining to great overall effect. As Benjamin sees the world through the allegory of animals, we begin to realise how his mind works and the extent of his naivety.
Father was an Eagle… Ikenna was python…Ikenna was a sparrow…Boja was a fungus…Obembe was a searchdog…I, Benjamin, was a moth.
The metaphors of animals are further used by Obioma to give a vivid portrayal of Nigeria, its inhabitants and culture. Along with the classic tragedy elements of The Fishermen mentioned previously, there is a fascinating insertion of magical and supernatural elements which derive from the folk-lore and superstitions of the setting.
All over the bazar, the congested mass of humanity seethed like a tribe of maggots.
Obioma’s entry for this year’s Booker Prize is a terrific tale with great depth and storytelling through his use of strong characterisation and plot twists. To be able to weave so much into The Fisherman without the story dragging is something I found particularly impressive. Obioma’s blend of classical tragedy within an African setting makes for a refreshing read.