A Feature Review of
The Fishermen: A Novel
I love a book that transports me to another place and that causes me to stretch outside the bounds of my own personal experience. Chigozie Obioma’s haunting debut, The Fishermen, features characters and experiences that provide a stark contrast with my own life while highlighting the similarities of the human experience. With lyrical language and Biblical imagery, Obioma uses the experiences of one family to weave a story of tragedy and redemption that holds universally applicable truths while also providing specific parallels for his home country of Nigeria.
The Fishermen tells the story of four brothers, 15 year old Ikenna, 14 year old Boja, 11 year old Obembe and 9 year old Benjamin, the narrator. The story opens with the boy’s father, a banker, being transferred to work in a city nearly 1000 kilometers from their home. This is a watershed event in the life of the family. Benjamin says, “Father’s move to Yola changed the equation of things: time and seasons and the past began to matter, and we started to yearn and crave for it even more than the present and the future.” Their father assures them that things will not change. He warns the boys that he will regularly call their mother for updates and that the things that have always been important will remain important: school, grades, behavior and preparing for the future. He expects his sons to act in his absence as they have always acted in his presence. Their father has plans for his sons, they will be doctors, pilots, professors, engineers and lawyers. Tellingly, a career path was not laid out for their younger sisters because “there was no need to decide such things for women.” When their deeply involved father moves away, things begin to change for the brothers. In fact, later people would “believe that had he not left Akure, our home would not have become vulnerable in the first place, and that the kind of adversity that befell us would not have happened.”
But the father moves away and soon the brothers begin to take advantage of his absence by doing things that he had forbidden. In the absence of their father, the younger brothers seem to be looking for a new leader. So they respond to the calling of Ikenna, their oldest brother who says, “Follow us, and we will make you fishermen!” The river in their town is dirty, dangerous, and the focus of many dark rumors. As such, it was a forbidden place. Their decision to head to the river was, in itself, a rejection of their father. At first, they are exultant. They feel manly, catching fish, at least in one case, large enough to sell. They are providers. They are making their own way in the world.
They are, of course, caught in their deception. Their father returns and harshly punishes his errant sons. Ikenna receives the harshest punishment and is also told that, as the oldest he bears some of the responsibility for the actions of his brothers. They follow him and he is partly to blame when they fall short. This punishment changes Ikenna. Benjamin says that “Ikenna turned into a python after the whipping.” After this experience begins to change things between the brothers, their relationship is further changed by a chance encounter with Abulu, the village madman.
The townspeople widely disliked Abulu. There were many stories of his insanity and children were routinely warned to stay away from him. Abulu was hated partly because he was different and didn’t act the way people thought he should. Abulu was hated partly because people believed him to be a prophet and “the prophecies he gave to people bred fear of the dark fate awaiting them.” So when the brothers have a chance encounter with Abulu and Abulu makes a prophecy that Ikenna interprets to mean that one of his brothers will kill him, Ikenna, himself, begins a terrible descent into madness and destruction.