I had the immense pleasure of watching the author speak. Obiama is an incredibly charming, humble and wellspoken man and it is with great regret that his debut novel is nothing more that mediocre.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The novel is warm and full of faults and tiny promises. But it is also a novel in dire need of editing. Too many strands of plot got in the way of the story, overly flourish prose stilted the pace, and somehow still made it impossible to rest in its images.
“All we did for the rest of that evening was sing, the dying sun pitched in a corner of the sky as faint as a nipple on the chest of a teenage girl a distance away.”
Metaphors like that just take you out of the story. Or stories, rather.
It is, all at once, a coming-off age story, a story about siblings and sibling rivalry, a story about the political developments in Nigeria, and a story about the cultural effects of British Culture on traditional African culture. These themes shifted and drifted and never quite came together in a strong coursing river.
The Fishermen takes place in Nigeria in the mid-90’s. Four brothers lives change when their father moves away to a big city for work, leaving them behind with their mother and two younger siblings. They start sneaking out and disobeying their parents. They go to a forbidden river to fish taking great joy in this new craft. One day, as they are walking home, the village madman, Abulu, who is known for his prophecies, foretells that the oldest brother will be killed by “a fisherman”.
This spurs a change in the relationship between the brothers and the first half deals mainly with the effect of prophecies, do they become true because they are true, or are they fulfilled by the fear of their truth?
When the oldest brother is killed by his youngest brother the family is thrust into grief and uncertainty. The remainder of the novel deals with guilt and grief and the blame thrust upon Abulu by the family.
Interwoven into this story is a story of the political upheavel of Nigeria, that never rings quite true to the real story of the novel. It is told very iteratively and the narrator constantly circles back and adds new stories to previously told events, something that can be regarded as an unreliable narrator, but mostly feels like the author wrote the book all in one go and instead of editing the story just came up with the bits and write them down wherever he happened to be.
Every chapter starts with a simile that, by the third chapter, seems unnecessarily stilted and repetitive. It is an obvious stylistic choice that upon its recognition removes the reader somewhat from the story. I asked the very, very charming author (my god he was just so funny and sweet) about this very rigid structure and he said “I always knew I wanted Ben to tell the story like that, to have him relate the world to animals.” Which I guess translates to “Because I liked it.” Fair enough, I liked it less.
Still I felt like I had a wonderful experience, but it was an experience on the surface. I never cried for all the tragedies that happen in the book. The language is the novel’s greatest acclaim. It was interesting and beautiful, but there was too much of it. Too much language, too much plot. I will probably check out his next book, but much of that is due to Obiama’s wonderful charm. I hope he’ll grow into his next book.