The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.
Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is the tragic story of four young brothers, Benjamin, Obembe, Boja, and Ikenna living in Akure, a village in Nigeria. When their father travels indefinitely for work, their boisterous mother is left to care for the four boys and their two baby siblings on her own. No longer fearing the iron rod of discipline when their father’s visits home grow more distant, the boys take to skipping school and fishing at a nearby river many people believe is cursed. One evening while the boys are fishing, they are approached by a madman, Abulu, who has a violent prophesy that Ikenna will be killed by one of his brothers.
Benjamin, the youngest sibling, is the voice and narrator of the story-a timid, unsure voice that speaks up only to affirm something his older brothers have said. Viewing the dismantling of relationships, their attempts to hide trips to the river from their parents, and the aftermath of Abulu’s poisonous words through Benjamin’s perspective is powerful and agonizing.
After that night on the river fifteen year old Ikenna changes. Growing more and more secluded, paranoid, and vengeful, he drives a wedge between the once close knit brotherhood that eventually swallows his entire family. Ikenna morphs from a loving older brother to a defiant fiend wrought with suspicion and anger, threatening his siblings and even his mother with beatings whenever they try to convince him the prophecy will not come true. There are short lived moments of clarity when Ikenna seems to know his actions are driving himself mad, but he is unable to control the roots of destruction that have taken residence in his mind.
When their father finally returns home it is long overdue and only after the damage is done. The face of his family has been beaten beyond recognition, and the comfort of familial trust has abandoned them.
He used to be a stronger man; an impregnable man who defended fathering so many children by saying he wanted us to be many so that there could be diversity of success in the family… And for many years, he’d carried this bag of dreams. He did not know that what he bore all those days was a bag of maggoty dreams; long decayed, and which, now, had become dead weight.
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and last year. In this debut novel Chigozie Obioma manages to remind African literature lovers of fellow acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), which is no small feat, being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. His characters are shaped with tremendous care, making each moment of their undoing all the more heartbreaking. Obioma’s use of imagery, metaphor, and cultural idioms paint a visceral picture of 1990s Nigeria, referencing events like MKO Abiola’s run for presidency and the remnants of the Biafran War. The Fishermen takes a close look at the superstitious nature, fate, religion, and politics in Nigeria, giving light to a great story in a palpable setting that makes you feel as if you’re rolling in the colorful market streets with these young boys, through their terrible coming of age story.