Set in 1996, The Fishermen tells the story of a family living in Akure, Nigeria. It focuses on the four oldest brothers – Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Ben – in the family, whose ages range from 9 to 15. The novel is told from the perspective of Ben, who is the youngest of the four, some 20 years after these events have taken place.
One day, their father returns home from work with the news that he is to be transferred to another office, and moves away, leaving his wife and children behind. Gradually, the fear that his presence instilled in them diminishes, and they begin to push at the boundaries of what they are allowed to do.
Whilst fishing in the river, they encounter Abulu, the local ‘mad man’, who has been known to accurately predict certain events. Amongst his ramblings, he utters a prophecy to the brothers – one with tragic results for them and their family if it were to come true. This causes a change in Ikenna, who becomes belligerent, setting in motion a course of events with devastating consequences.
This is an extremely sad novel – to see these four boys, who seem to be so close and protective of each other, pulled apart, and how it affects their family is heartbreaking. Throughout the novel, there are little insights into their lives prior to these events, which show the deep brotherly bonds they once had, and the lengths they would go to for each other. Juxtaposed with this is the increasingly erratic and destructive behaviour of Ikenna, to whom the others had previously looked for guidance.
The Fishermen uses the idea of a self-fulling prophecy to trigger the events. The reader (this reader, at least) can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they’d hadn’t crossed Abulu’s path that day, or hadn’t started fishing at all. Whilst this isn’t an original mechanism, it’s an idea that I love, and I think that it’s used to particularly good effect in this novel.
The writing throughout the novel is extraordinary – detailed and laden with beautiful imagery. Obioma evokes a sense of what it was like to live in Akure in the mid-90s, and introduces the customs, culture and beliefs of Nigeria in such a way that you feel like you’re there.
It’s hard to believe that this is Obioma’s debut novel, and not at all hard to see why it’s appeared on this year’s Man Booker Prize long list. Having not read any of the other long listed titles yet, it’s impossible to say if this could be the ultimate winner of this year’s prize, but I can say that Obioma’s The Fishermen wouldn’t be out of place with previous winners of the award.