In writing about a novel like The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, I find myself in a dilemma. The bare emotion of the story makes it hard reading at times, the edge of the page quivered in my white-knuckled grip, but it’s also finely crafted, technically precise and deftly structured. I loved it. I’m tempted to make a grand claim about this book, but which should I make?
Benjamin is the youngest of four brothers in the small Nigerian town of Akure. When their father moves to another city for work, the strong, paternal family structure leaves with him. Feeling adrift and looking for adventure, the brothers get the idea to start fishing on the river. While it sounds harmless, the river is a forbidden place. It’s considered dirty and dangerous, especially for boys who are being given a Western education to become the kind of “civilized” men that their father imagines. When a neighbor catches the boys fishing and tells their mother, their life changes forever. But it’s the prophecy of a madman, shouted out as they run from the river, that seals their fate.
Part parable, part retelling of the Cain and Abel story, what follows is the tragic tale of the brothers’ undoing. The prophecy of the madman runs into the family’s mix of Igbo culture, Christian influences, and Western education in such a way that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Ben is nine years old as the story opens and tells of the events as they unfold in front of his young eyes. An older, wiser Ben, interjects on occasion to add authority, “the way things always become clearer only after they have happened.” This double-edged narration gives momentum, but also deepens the layers of the story and it takes on the quality of a parable. Ben’s experience traces and explores the political upheaval of post-colonial Nigeria in the 1990s.
Anyone familiar with the work of Chinua Achebe is probably noting similarities. This is where my dilemma as a writer starts. It’s so easy to set the bait for a clickable headline: Obioma Is the Successor to Achebe.
It is often said that Things Fall Apart is the most widely read book in modern African literature. Like Obioma, Achebe, who passed away in 2013, wrote in English. Both men are Igbo and write about how their language influences culture, how Igbo beliefs have intertwined with Christianity and Western culture. By weaving the pace and energy of the oral tradition into the novel form, Obioma’s work is as vibrant and alive as Achebe’s. Crowning Obioma as a successor is an easy claim to make, but The New York Times already beat me to it: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.”
The other problem is that I can’t quite make myself commit to it. When I read The Fishermen, I kept thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another try: The Fishermen Is the Americanah of 2015.
One of the many brilliant things about Americanah is Adichie’s ability to take something ordinary, like the hair on your head, and show how it connects to the larger political climate. We get to go between the ears of the main character, test the tightness of a braid, and know how it feels. More, we come to understand the political and cultural meaning of that braid. Similarly, The Fishermen charges the simple act of fishing with meaning. The boys defiance of their father’s rules becomes a glimpse into how a belief system was lost in colonialism. Fishing is more than a rod and hook, it’s an elegy to a country.
While it could be the Americanah of 2015, I can’t quite commit to that claim either because as I read The Fishermen, I couldn’t stop thinking of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Both novels make use a child’s voice in a similarly effective way.
We Need New Names starts in a very different place, a shantytown in Zimbabwe. Darling, the 10-year-old narrator, is led by her senses. Through her young eyes, we taste the guava, smell the dirt, and feel the heat of the sun. Her young feelings lay a foundation for our understanding Darling’s later experiences in America, “like it’s telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.”
The Fishermen opens with Ben at age nine. His rough and tumble life with his brothers, the experience of being the “children of a rich man” who get their copy of “Mortal Kombat” taken away, the scary stories about the forbidden river, all these are told through innocent eyes. It allows someone from another place to understand how and why Ben’s life later uproots. For example, Ben is learning why a parent switches from Igbo to English when speaking about politics as we are — English has the needed words like “administration.” Or one brother doesn’t get the meaning of an Igbo expression, so his mother switches to English and Ben understands why, “our parents most often reverted to English when angry, because being angry, they didn’t want to have to explain whatever they said.” These are just a few examples of how Darling and Ben show us their inner lives without lengthy explanations.
Which brings me back to my dilemma, should I call Obioma the next Bulawayo? Adichie or Achebe? He could be called all of these things, but The Fishermen is also none of these things. It is a novel that is all its own.
And there is a quieter truth about all of these novels that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to headlines. They remind me of why I love reading: to be shown what it might be like inside another culture; to slip between someone else’s ears; to feel a life that I won’t get to live. This is a truly clickworthy thing. But, it doesn’t happen in a headline. It takes longer than a sentence. It is a feeling that only comes over the course of many sentences that are strung together to make up a book like The Fishermen.