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.

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