Review: The Fishermen by Chijioke Obioma

By Abeer Hoque

FishermenThe Fishermen is a magnificent debut novel by Nigerian writer Chijioke Obioma. It follows the lives of four young brothers: Ikenna (14), Boja (13), Obembe (11), and Ben (9). They are growing up in a small town in southwestern Nigeria although their Igbo family is originally from the east. The brothers decide to fish the small, polluted (and forbidden) river that bounds their town. On one of these secret expeditions, the town madman Abulu issues a cataclysmic prophecy that changes everything. 

In the beginning, Obioma’s writing is sometimes jerky and awkward. It smooths and becomes more assured as the book goes on. The town is described vividly, with phrases like “varicose trees dipped into the water” and “nations of spiders.” Abulu’s home is an abandoned truck, which has “gradually atrophied into a kingdom of wild cactus and elephant grass.” Most often, the text is plain spoken and perhaps appropriately if grossly peppered with descriptions of bodily excreta that fascinate boys. Few pages went by without some mention of spit or shit. The following passage captures both that and one of the novel’s beautiful threads – the proverbial culture of the Igbo people:

The superstition that if a pregnant woman stepped on saliva, the person who had spit – if male – would be rendered permanently impotent, which I understood at the time to mean that one’s organ would magically disappear.

The Fishermen is a rip roaring story and once it gets going, the road to ruin is masterfully written, each character’s psychological path precisely and inexorably drawn, and Abulu’s prophecy “causing smoke to rise from things yet unburned.” I highly recommend this book.

The Fishermen
Chijioke Obioma
Back Bay Books
ISBN 978-0316338356