Taking ‘do as I say’ to the extreme.
Publisher: One (Pushkin Press)
First Published: 11th February 2015 (in translation); 26th February 2015
Date Reviewed: 3rd March 2016
Together with his four elder brothers, Ben starts going to the river to fish, secretly, because the town views the previously-worshipped waters with suspicion. The boys are caught by a neighbour, whipped by their father, but the real trouble with creeping out alone is yet to come. One day the madman Abulu, considered religious by some, happens upon the brothers and tells them that one will kill another.
The Fishermen is a book that incorporates folklore, old customs, and 1990s Nigerian social and religious culture into its tale of tragedy. A literary venture, it takes its time on one particular element, bolstered by a background of politics, fundamental Christianity, and the kind of child discipline we now call too much.
Dealing with the writing style first because it’s the first thing to make its mark, Obioma favours a detailed, sometimes overly-wordy, almost studious style that nevertheless has the power to wow on occasion. He likes ‘big’ words, beautiful sentences, and his young narrator, Ben, is just the right side of well-spoken rather than appearing too old for his years. Obioma narrates in a way similar to the spoken narration you often find in Victorian adaptations, films – that slow, wistful narration most common to women. There’s an oral tradition feel to it, poetic, storyteller. It could certainly be called too much – it’s one of those styles you’ll likely either love or hate. Obioma is entirely unapologetic; he wants a well-written book, old fashioned – understandably more 90s than nowadays – and he will have one. (You do have to remember the setting when considering the style, the time and the place.)
It’s not completely well-written but whether that’s down to Obioma or the editing process is hard to say. Certainly the myriad uses of ‘in’ instead of ‘on’, of ‘on’ instead of ‘at’ and so on, are at odds with the rest of the text, suggesting an oversight or perhaps a slight discord between our literature professor and the publisher’s editors. Whatever the reason, the constant misuse is distracting and means keeping your mind on the story is difficult.
There is a disconnect of sorts between Ben and the reader; where Obioma is so focused on the way he writes his tale – the words, the genres, the background – Ben, his brothers and other family are not so detailed. They are detailed – they’re not one-dimensional at all – but there’s no pressing reason, no feeling of the need to care, which is a problem when the story involves a lot of tragedy. And it’s hard to get to grips with the family – the way the father metes out punishment, the mother quick to manipulate and throw her children under the proverbial bus, are perhaps more difficult to read than the author hoped.
Not much goes on in the book – this sounds too ironic to be true so I’ll explain: the book is a series of tragic events with some politics in the background, but not much beyond that. This isn’t a failing in itself, many books are similar, it just means that The Fishermen is more about the sum than the parts. The book is not as interesting to read as it is to contemplate after the fact, when you’re able to put everything together and see that Obioma’s goal has been to provide an overall meaning, a message, even.
Superstition or prophecy? Obioma presents the possibility of both and asks you to form your own conclusion. What was it that made things happen as they did and can and should religious ideas take precedent? Obioma looks at the psychological factors ruling his characters’ choices, the way one thing said by a person considered mad has a knock-on effect. And as much as the characters are Christian, the author shows that mythology and old ways can still creep into life, that we can move on to new ideas but those old ones will remain ingrained for a time.
A note on one of the tragedies – this book deals with under-age crime in a way that may make you uncomfortable. This is actually a reason to read it rather than not because it opens you to the situation and says more by its inclusion than Obioma could say without it – more than he could say just in words. It’s viewed through a similar lens as the rest of the book: it happens, whether it’s right or wrong is irrelevant here.
Overall, then, The Fishermen is a good book, but doesn’t quite keep the promise of the first pages. It does make for some interesting contemplation but the contemplation is fairly short-lived. Take it as a look at 90s Nigeria, its politics and its culture and society and you’ll be best off.
March 10, 2016, 3:12 pm
I’ve heard a little about this book but not much, yours is the most comprehensive review I’ve read :) It sounds good though not perfect. Still worth the time?
March 14, 2016, 10:26 am
Stefanie: Thanks :) Yes, I’d say it is worth the time. Best to go in with lower expectations.