The Fishermen: A Novel

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Before They Were Notable: 2015

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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well:

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction)
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill)
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation)
Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)

Booker Prize Offers Up Eclectic 2015 Shortlist

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The Booker Prize has whittled down its longlist to an intriguing shortlist, and none of the authors tapped has previously won the Prize. As was the case last year, two Americans make the shortlist this year: Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara. They are joined by Nigerian Chigozie Obioma, the UK’s Sunjeev Sahota and Tom McCarthy, and Jamaican Marlon James. The bookies suggest that Yanagihara is the favorite to win. She would be the first American to take the Prize.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (The Last Epoch: Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island Takes on the Avant-Garde)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2015 Booker Longlist

In the second year that the Booker Prize has been open to U.S. authors, five American authors make the longlist. Anne Enright is the lone former winner on the list, while Marilynne Robinson is the most celebrated American to be tapped. Other notable names include Hanya Yanagihara, Tom McCarthy, and Bill Clegg, who has been better known as a high-powered literary agent and memoirist. Laila Lalami, who now calls the U.S. her home, is the first Moroccan-born writer to land on a Booker longlist. Seven countries are represented overall.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Green Road by Anne Enright (What It Is to Be Alone: The Millions Interviews Anne Enright)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (“How History Becomes Story – Three Novels” by Laila Lalami, Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (A Millions Top 10 book)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
The Chimes by Anna Smaill
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)

Clickworthy Headlines about ‘The Fishermen’ by Chigozie Obioma

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.

Tuesday New Release Day: Millhauser; Gray; Percy; Flournoy; Obioma; Freeman; Thirlwell; Palaia; Jackman; Wong; Sendker

New this week: Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser; Gutshot by Amelia Gray; The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy; The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma; The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman; Lurid and Cute by Adam Thirlwell; The Given World by Marian Palaia; The Winter Family by Clifford Jackman; Diamond Head by Cecily Wong; and Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great 2015 Book Preview.

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