The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen is one brother’s tale of how he and his three eldest brothers lived through many manifestations of the fisherman role. When their father is forced to leave home for work in an unsafe town to which he will not bring his family, the boys encounter the dark prophecy of the local madman, Adulu, supposed to have killed his brother after a car accident left him mentally deranged who now roves the streets naked and either desperate to have sex or to pass on his powerful visions.

To say more would ruin the plot, but I can say that what is most beautiful about this novel is its belief in the power of story. At every turn it is the tale that twists through characters’ lives urging them to act in the face of well-worn narrative paths, their own dreams, the stories of the past, of gods, literature, myth, or prophecy, all play their part in presenting us with choices. Do we believe or not? Do we follow one story or another? How do we shape the story of our future in the face of these conflicting narratives of our past?

The Igbo language has a part to play in this love of story. Even though we read in English, phrases of Igbo are explained to us, their proverbial and narrative bent essential to an understanding of the need humans have to understand the world around them, to interpret it into a cohesive, graspable whole. Story offers one solution and Chigozie Obioma’s novel is full of story-telling power. Repetition, the use of fable, parable, myth, a sense of the oral tradition in which every telling is nuanced by current events like a fisherman gathering the same net with different fish everyday, all flow through this story so powerfully that its web is a mesmeric joy. It allows a simple story to hold multiple layers as these Nigerian boys mirror the turmoil of their country, everything enacted in the name of brotherhood.

Writing like this is powerful and provocative. With so many narratives to choose from – do we pick the narrative of family, country, God, wealth? – anything that forces to hone our abilities to interpret is essential. There are no easy answers and lots of questions all prompted by a desire to continue being able to tell the tale.

Next week I’m reading Lila by Marilynne Robinson, another novel on the Booker longlist.