The Fishermen

by Chigozie Obioma

Some time ago, I was discussing literature with a friend, when the topic turned to the comparison of Kevin Hardcastle’s writing to Cormac McCarthy’s in numerous blurbs and reviews, and how such an exercise usually sets him up for unreasonable expectations that tend to be crushed in due course. At the time, I don’t think I fully understood the nature of the complaint, just because Hardcastle’s sparse prose describing a barren and dangerous world honestly put me very much in mind with McCarthy. I bring this up just because I was reminded of this conversation when I noticed a blurb on the back of my copy of The Fisherman calling its author “a kind of African Cormac McCarthy.” And upon finishing the book and strongly disagreeing with that sentiment, I think I finally get what my friend was talking about.

This isn’t to suggest that this was necessarily the main source of my disappointment with a book that won numerous awards and appears to be received in largely glowing terms by readers, but I’ll back things up a bit and explain what it’s about before delving deeper in this regard. The Fishermen is narrated by Ben, looking back on his childhood in Nigeria in the ’90s. After his father moves away for work, Ben and his brothers start taking up fishing at a nearby river––something they’re forbidden from doing, but how can they resist with their newfound freedom that came with the recent lack of parental supervision? As you’d expect in a forbidden place, it’s associated with something sinister, in the form of the local madman Abulu in this case. Having the reputation of being something of a prophet, Abulu confronts Ben’s oldest brother with a vague prediction that he will be killed by one of his brothers––by a fisherman, more specifically, but everyone interprets it as a brother. Afterwards, everything in their tight-knit family spirals out of control.

The biggest issue I found with The Fishermen wasn’t so much with the story’s content, but with the author’s choices for telling it, and I’m finding myself at a bit of a loss with understanding this. This isn’t because I struggle with my opinion, as has happened occasionally in the past, but that similar writing has cropped up periodically in other well-regarded books, and I don’t get the draw for this kind of structure. The problem is that Obioma consistently presents a significant event, and then goes on to describe why the reader should care. The issue is that the author loses a great deal of his shock or suspense this way. Had the ordering been reversed––that we learned something without immediately connecting it to the event in question, and then hitting the reader with it suddenly––the significance could have been immediately apparent when the plot point is presented. Using this technique effectively can stop the reader in her tracks. I assume this decision was made for some mixture of two well-intentioned reasons that yield contrary results. Firstly, Obioma seemed to be trying to surprise readers by hiding information related to these significant events until they happen, effectively hurting the surprise in the process. And secondly, it almost felt like an attempt at improving earlier pacing, withholding background information in order to move the plot forward sooner, which came at the expense of later––and overall––pacing. (The counterpoint I’d present here is the moment Ben and one of his brothers come home to find Abulu waiting outside. This proves to be the exception to this within The Fishermen. In this case, we already have some idea of who the madman is and the encounter proves positively chilling. Imagine if he was a stranger instead, and we then learned about his past. It could still be a bit creepy, yes, but I’d argue that the scene would be nowhere near as effective.)

Otherwise, I wouldn’t suggest that anything stood out to me in any major way, for better or for worse. (The prose is fine, overall, and I found myself a bit disappointed with the way the story progressed.) I’ve read in a few places, including quotes from Obioma, that The Fishermen has a lot to do with portraying the situation––socially, economically, and politically––in Nigeria, including all its idiosyncrasies. And I of course saw the overt glimpses of this in and around Obioma’s tragedy, but I’m otherwise ignorant of the nation’s history. Maybe this personal failing kept me from witnessing the apparently exquisite writing before me, but I’m at least a bit skeptical.