Book Note: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

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I finished reading The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma a couple weeks ago. It was startling in it’s simplicity and, by the end, stunning in it’s complexity. The heart of the story is four boys who, when their father goes away on business, skip school in favor of fishing in the river. On the way home from one of their adventures they come across the local madman, Abulu, who issues a prophecy that the eldest will be killed by one of the other brothers. The rest of the story is the unfolding dynamic of the prophecy’s impact on this family.

The straight line of cause-and-effect masks the outside turbulences and the subtle themes. It is a good story – a powerful story. Obioma takes it further. One review I read mentioned the political situation at the time – Nigeria’s own turmoil – and the message in the book being one for the country. Others mentioned the issue of trust and family bonds. There are biblical allusions. And, without a doubt, The Fishermen, examines concepts not unfamiliar to readers of Things Fall Apart and with similar motifs. Forces from within the unit and from outside threaten the family in this story. I could tell you about the river, the madman, the animal comparisons. But what I really would suggest is that you read it.

What resonated most sharply with me was the influence of belief-  another similarity to Achebe’s great work. I didn’t recognize this thread until I was in the last quarter of the book, and then one of the brother’s said, “I’ve read a lot and know that without it…we could never be free.” Each character believes something and that influences their choices. Ikenna believed the madman, and it tore him apart. Boja believed in himself. Obe believed in knowledge. Ben believed in Obe and followed his path toward revenge. In the end, the reader is left to question what he or she believes about Obe’s existence – did he return or is Ben projecting merely what he hopes?

The story is told by Ben. Ultimately it is Ben’s decision to reject his belief in Obe and act independently that brought the book to its climax. The emotions of that one moment are powerful.

Obioma has succeeded in writing a book with wide-appeal. The primary storyline is a compelling read for a new reader, but those with more critical reasons for engaging will be rewarded as well. In both cases, once read, the book will be put on their “re-read” pile. And I suspect, with each opening, readers will uncover something new. And that is what makes a book – and this book – an enduring addition to the literary landscape of the day.

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