Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Fragility of Family: Chigozie Obioma's The Fisherman

In the year some have dubbed the year of the debut novel, The Fishermen has been getting quite a bit of buzz as one of the most significant first novels of the year. I first heard of it on the weekly Book Riot podcast, then an interview he did for the Lit Up podcast, and the universal praise it was receiving quickly raised it to the top of my to read titles for the summer, even gifting a copy of it to my mother's partner based on all the noise the novel was receiving.

Then came the Man Booker Prize  naming The Fishermen to its long list and many more eyes have perked up to pay attention to this really remarkable book.

Obiome's novel is the tale of four brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) growing up in the political turmoil of 1990s Nigeria. After their father is sent by his employer to another city, the four brothers take to spending their days fishing in a local and cursed body of water.

Their leisurely exploration of fishing is soon interrupted by a mother horrified that her children have been galavanting in the afflicted waters but even more significantly by a local madman and occasional prophet (Abula) who tells the brothers that the oldest of them (Ikenna) is destined to die at the hand of a fisherman. This prophesy lingers in the mind of Ikenna, who quickly drifts from his once-close sibblings, convinced that Abula has seen his future.

From there Obiome takes us through the lasting impact of the horrible divination and how the once loving and strong bonds that held the siblings together quickly unravel under the weight of the fate Abula has predicted.

There is a lot to say about this book. Firstly, the writing is tremendous. It is both lyrical and beautiful, but also forceful and sharp, not wasting any words as Obiome describes in intense detail the mundane world with crisp and vivid language. It is also one of those books that slowly embraces the reader, who skeptically starts and is quickly taken in as the plot advances, eager to find out what happens, devastated when all is revealed. I always feel that a book is elevated to greatness in its final words, and Obiome's concluding chapter ties everything so well that we as readers are just left in awe.

This book also made me think about how the use of adolescents as characters gives an author a really intriguing plot device. Much of The Fishermen's key moments are forks in the road, where the protagonists must decide how to navigate confusing forces beyond their full understanding. Their immaturity fogs their decision-making and the rough road the brothers must travel are largely caused by perspectives skewed by age. I found this absolutely fascinating. While it is frustrating as a reader to have children often take paths we know are fraught with peril, we still understand why they would make such a choice, even if taking such a course is chosen for the most naive of reasons.

Anyways, this was an absolutely brilliant novel, certainly one of the best of the year and hopefully the Man Booker committee will agree and shortlist The Fishermen next month.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Catching Up With Summer Reading

It has been a while since my last review and there has been a lot of books read since then. Instead of doing individual reviews, below is a quick blitz of some of the really remarkable releases this summer.

Sara Taylor's The Shore ranks up there with A Little Life for one of the most ambitious and fascinated novels of 2015. Taking place on a series of islands on the Virginian coast, Taylor's novel intertwines the lives of several different characters over several hundred years who struggle through colonial assimilation, economic depravity, sexual violence, and population wiping apocalypse. The Shore has drawn some comparison to A Visit from the Goon Squad, in its effort to use experimental structure to combine desperate stories into a cohesive novel and I would say that it actually does a more effective job than Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer winning book (although that sentiment may not be shared by most). Nonetheless, for someone to pull off this feat, or even be compared to Goon Squad, in her first novel, is quite remarkable.

Matthew Thomas received a huge advance for his first book We Are Not Ourselves and its release was highly anticipated in 2014 as a likely literary award winner. However, when the numerous Top Ten lists began coming out at the end of the year, Thomas' epic novel was glaringly missing. Award season offered no solace either. So when I picked up the audiobook to listen, I figured that there would be something disappointing about the novel that had turned off the literary establishment. Thomas' tale of the Leary family's struggle through the malaise of family life and illness at the end of the Twentieth Century is a slow and at times too detailed story. There were moments where I felt Thomas needed a stronger editor who could cull some of the unnecessary description. That said, there was a deep and tranquil beauty to the story. There is a sadness that permeates throughout the novel, as each of the main characters is pulled in different directions in their effort to achieve the American Dream and almost always misjudge what should be done. We are left with a family filled with regret and it is that mood that drives this story. Thomas may not have produced the Great American Novel, but he has certainly offered a story that will linger with the reader's soul.

The book of the summer without question is Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his son, Coates delivers a powerful account of the fear and concern he has for his son's safety in an American society that has long treated 'black bodies' as entities to be subjugated, to be beaten, to be brutalized, to be murdered. Written in the aftermath of the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, that the release of Coates' book a year later has also surrounded itself with numerous police killings of African American men and women speaks to the need for a deep conversation (and agitation) among Americans (and Canadians) about why black bodies are so easily disposed of by those expected to secure safety in society. There is a reason this is the "It" book of the year and one that should be picked up by anyone who wants to tear down the racism that permeates our society.

T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come has also received significant buzz. Taking place in Northern California, Boyle offers a multi-perspective novel of a family torn apart by mental illness and anti-authoritarian feelings. Driving the story in many ways are the anti-government sentiments of several of the characters who in one way or another espouse a "free man on the land" ideology that questions the legitimate authority of the state. Similar themes were explored in last year's critically acclaimed Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. I have to say that after reading Coates' book, I found little sympathy or affinity to a story of a young white man and woman whose experience of state oppression pales in comparison to those experienced by millions of African Americans. Although Boyle certainly is a powerful writer, I kept on thinking to myself why these stories of white mountain men deserved so much attention, and asking myself what it says about white privilege that they receive so much attention. A work of literature does not have answer the big questions of the day, but when they try to ask them and offer perspective, I think it is fair to also ask why certain people are raised to the forefront of antagonist and why certain are missing.

After these quite heavy books, my last plug is going to be for an absolutely amazing YA novel by Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper. Our protagonist is a teenage Puerto Rican young woman, Sierra, who discovers a powerful magic that her family possesses, being able to use murals and paintings to harness the powers of spirits. Adding to the shock of this discovery is the fact that many of her family friends who share this power have been disappearing or being killed up. Sierra is forced to learn how to harness this power and find out why someone is targeting the Shadowshapers. This book was so much fun and filled with subtle subversive and anti-racist sentiments. If you have a teenager in your life or enjoy YA, pick up Older's book, cuz it's awesome.