On a Sunday afternoon, I read the heartrending climax of Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, THE FISHERMEN, breathlessly. When I got up, I was in a literary-induced fugue: I stumbled into my car, momentarily forgetting how to turn it on, wandered the grocery store and left empty-handed, and even abandoned the rest of the day’s plans. My brain seemed to be emptied of everything but this engrossing Cain and Abel story that stupefies and confounds with every turn of a page.
Before the weighty plot sets in, Chigozie Obioma, a fisherman of the nostalgic, reels you in with his dauntless prose reminiscent of African folklore and the stories my own father told me about his childhood in Nigeria.
The line of no return occurs in the opening paragraphs. The narrator Benjamin Agwu, the fourth of six siblings, says: “My brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe—and I had come to understand that when the two ventricles of our home—our father and mother—held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them.” This line is a foreshadowing of a universal truth: it is often our very own children who have the power to break our hearts beyond repair.
Ben is only nine when he witnesses the labyrinthine unraveling of his family in a small Nigerian town in 1996. The boys—Ben, Obembe, and their older brothers, Boja and Ikenna—drop out of school when their father moves away for business to become fishermen, fishing at the forbidden Omi-Ala River. There they meet the local madman, Abulu, whom some residents believe holds divine insight into the spiritual world and others believe is demon-possessed.
Though some of the other fishermen warn him not to, Ikenna is drawn to Abulu’s words when the madman calls him by name. The words plant an unshakable fear in Ikenna that begins what Ben calls “The Metamorphosis.” What did the madman say? That Ikenna would die by the hands of a fisherman, a brother.
When Ben’s mother finds out about Abulu’s “curse,” it’s too late. This serpent-like prophecy—whether self-fulfilling or otherworldly remains a mystery to me—has contaminated every part of the Agwu family’s lives, from their relationships to their mental health to their Christian faith. But it is Ben’s parents, through the loss and regaining of faith, who sustain permanent physical and mental injuries and are left changed beyond recognition.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, THE FISHERMEN is not just a story about the bonds between brothers, loyalty, and grief but also a story about the power of words. The words in Chigozie Obioma’s stunning debut will move you, haunt you, and perhaps for a moment render you speechless and senseless.