It is hardly surprising that Chigozie Obioma has attracted the attention of the Man Booker Prize judges with this, his first novel. It is the kind of book that you would expect to find its way onto the longlist and, from there, to the shortlist. It is the kind of book that you would expect to have a very good chance of winning. Which it may well do, as it is one of the six titles shortlisted for 2015. It is a stunning book written with spellbinding literary skill. The writing is beautiful. The story is gripping. You want to find out what happens to the four brothers – the fishermen of the title. You even want to find out what happens to the madman who curses them, thus setting the story in motion. This is the kind of book that the Man Booker Prize seizes on every year, bringing it to the attention of the reading public. This book is an example of one of the many reasons that readers have to be grateful to the Man Booker judges.
“The Fishermen” is set in a small village in Nigeria called Akure. The tale begins with four brothers deciding to go on a Huckleberry Finn-type trip to the river to go fishing. This is despite, or more accurately because of, the fact that their father has forbidden them to go to the river. It is this act of original sin that sets the story in motion. If they had not gone to the river, they would not have met the madman. If they had not gone to the river, Ikenna would not have been cursed. If they had not gone to the river, all the things that followed would not have happened. If they had not gone to the river, there would be no story to tell. Or, at least, not this story. A different story, possibly, but who can know that. They went to the river, and this is the story that resulted from such a simple act of disobedience.
The nature of the morality tale is reinforced because each chapter begins with a character being compared to an animal, and is given the characteristics of that animal to help the reader understand the nature of the story. For instance, we are told that “Ikenna was a sparrow”. Then we are told that a sparrow is “a thing with wings, able to fly out of sight, in the blink of an eye.” And there then follows a chapter in which Ikenna did exactly that, with devastating effect on the rest of his family. Chapter after chapter begins with this kind of metaphor, leading the story forwards through the description of the animal concerned.
I am not going to tell you any more of what happens when Ikenna and his brothers go the river. For that you will have to read the book. And I am not going to write anything that would destroy the pleasure you will have from this story. If pleasure is the right word, because there is something dreadful and tragic about what follows. It is the kind of pleasure that you have from watching “King Lear” or listening to the “Eroica”. Or in reading Masisi Kunene’s “ShakaZulu”. It is very much a special and dramatic kind of pleasure. It is not to be missed.
So what is there to tell you about this book. The writing is masterly, the story is spellbinding. Chigozie Obioma is obviously a writer to watch – and read.