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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma [2015 Booker shortlist]

The FishermenIn the small town of Akure in Nigeria, an ambitious father dreams of the illustrious futures awaiting his sons. Ikenna the eldest at 15, is destined to be a pilot, Boja a lawyer, Obembe the family’s medical doctor and nine-year-old Ben, a professor. Even David, barely three years old, had his future mapped out as an engineer. Only the youngest child has an unchartered future but as a girl, to her father she didn’t count.

Mr Agwu’s plans  crumble when his employer transfers him to a bank in the north of the country. Freed from their father’s strict control, they take to fishing in the river surrounding Akure despite its dark history as a place of floating corpses and mutilated bodies. It’s here they encounter Abulu, a deranged, malodorous creature.

He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food and unhealed wounds and pus, of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear…… But these were not all: he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls.

Abulu predicts Ikenna will be killed by one of his fishermen brothers, a prophecy which dogs the boys’ lives and from which tragedy ensues.

This is a coming-of-age tale of brotherly love and the disintegration of a family, of how a good and noble man is punished for his pride and a loving mother is unhinged. It’s a tale of the fight between the choices we make and the choices we’re believed we’re forced to take.

In parallel we have the story of Nigeria itself.  Chigozie Obioma has called The Fishermen a wake-up call to his home country, a  “dwindling nation” which he portrays as a country whose promise, like that of Agwu’s sons, is never fulfilled. Brother turns on brother and independence descends into civil war. The hope that rides on the popular politician MKO Abiola is destroyed when election results are rigged and he ends up in military detention. As Ben, the story’s narrator, reflects many years after the event:

Hope is a tadpole.

The thing you caught and brought home with you in a can but which despite being kept in the right water, soon died.

I know little about Nigeria’s history but I didn’t need it in order to enjoy this novel enormously.  Chigozie Obioma blends traditional techniques of novel writing with African story-telling traditions, sprinkles his text liberally with songs and snatches of conversation in Igbo and Yoruba and references to Igbo culture and superstitions. The above average quota of symbols and metaphors give it a distinctively writerly feel. Every chapter opens with a metaphor which draws a parallel between a family member and an animal or creature: father is an eagle; Ikenna a sparrow, mother a falconer etc. Its a technique that could easily be tediously over-elaborated – a case of form over substance – but the point is not to simply decorate the story but to draw out a dimension of that individual’s character, showing their true nature and the forces that drive their actions.

That doesn’t mean this is a novel without flaws. Obioma does tend to get totally carried away with his verbal cleverness sometimes, opting for the highly descriptive when a more simple form of words would suffice. Adjectives proliferate, some more successfully inventive than others.  A description of dusk as a “crepuscular awning” I can buy, less so body odour as a “corporeal convoy” and I’m still struggling to make sense of “the egg-white days of our lives”.

But The Fishermen is still a wonderfully vivid and heart breaking tale. I have a feeling even if Obioma doesn’t win the Booker Prize with this debut novel, that we’ll be hearing a lot more of him in the future.

End Notes

The Fishermen by  Chigozie Obioma is published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Born and raised in Nigeria, Obioma now lives in Michigan, USA.

Snapshot October 2015

Autumn leavesOctober 1 saw me on a business trip to Germany. Here’s a snapshot of what I was doing on that day.

Reading

Unusually for me I had three novels on the go on this date. Reading two simultaneously is something I can manage if they are very different genres/styles but I’ve never before had three in progress.

After a run of novels with rather dark subjects I was in need of some lighter fare. Since I don’t tend to enjoy comedy in novels, “lighter fare” for me usually means crime fiction. I had Silence of the Sea by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottiron my TBR from Christmas last year which I thought I’d better read before this year’s festive event (otherwise I’ll get challenged why I want more books as gifts when I haven’t read the ones I got last time etc etc). It’s not as good as the review in the Sunday Times suggested it would be but it fitted the need at the time. More than half way through the novel, I realised that my library edition of the Booker shortlisted title The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma couldn’t be renewed so I switched to that one. But then at short notice I was asked to take this trip to Germany and didn’t want to lug a hard cover book with me. Which is how I ended up taking my Kindle and reading The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra, an advance copy via NetGalley and publication date is coming up fast.

Listening

I finished All the Light we Cannot See last week eventually. It only really perked up for me in the last quarter. I haven’t started anything new yet, just catching up on some podcasts. For my next audiobook I’m torn between Can you Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope and The Human Factor by Graham Greene. I’m a Greene fan and this is one I’ve not come across before. On the other hand I also like Trollope… Hm too many decisions.

Watching

Knowing I’d be restricted in the choice of English language TV challenges I armed myself for my trip with a DVD from Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series. No matter how many times I’ve seen these dramatised monologues I still love them. This time I indulged in one of my favourites: A Cream Cracker Under the Settee in which Thora Bird turns in a stunning performance as the 79-year-old Dora who falls while trying to do a spot of dusting. Alone and injured she worries that the only place left for her is a care home which she considers abhorrent. She decides she would rather die on her own in pain than live in a place where everyone is expected to sing “I’m H.A.P.P.Y. I’m H.A.P.P.Y”. Simply sublime.

Reading overload

breatheI blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany.  It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.

Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.

So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.

All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.

Man Booker Prize longlist 2015

I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.

My reactions to the list are rather mixed.

On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.

On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.

  • Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
  • The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
  • The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
  • Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
  • The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
  • The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
  • Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
  • Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
  • The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
  • The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
  • A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author

Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13.  My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen. 

For other views on the list take a look at:

PJE’s Booker Blog

Clare at Word by Word

 

 

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