"Omi-Ala was a dreadful river," explains Ben, the young narrator of Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen. "Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god; people worshipped it." But everything changed when Europeans colonized and Christianized the part of Nigeria where the river lay. "[T]he people, now largely Christians, began to see it as an evil place. A cradle besmeared."
The river, with its "bracken waters ... [and] nauseating sight of algae and leaves that formed the shape of a map of troubled nations," is as much a character in Obioma's engrossing debut novel as the title fishermen, a group of boys who disobey their elders and spend afternoons angling on the banks of the Omi-Ala. For four of those boys, all members of the Agwu family, their hobby doesn't last long — and it comes with terrible consequences.
The novel begins with the boys' father telling his family that he's taken a job in Yola, on the other side of Nigeria from their hometown of Akure. Their mother is aghast at the prospect of having to single-handedly care for their kids while still working as a merchant, but he leaves anyway, warning the boys that any misbehavior on their part will be dealt with sternly.
The boys — Ben, Obembe, Boja and Ikenna — don't listen. They forsake their textbooks for soccer balls, and when that sport proves too contentious, they decide to take to the forbidden river, hoping to catch fish to sell. It's there they run into Abulu, a local "madman" known for the unsettling prophecies he directs at mostly unwilling residents of Akure.
Abulu has a particularly dire prediction for Ikenna, the oldest of the boys: "[Y]ou will be bound like a bird on the day you shall die. ... [Y]ou shall die like a cock dies." Ikenna, he says, will lose his life at the hands of one of his siblings.
Ikenna doesn't respond well. "[T]he prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying his mind with the ferocity of madness," Obioma writes, "pulling down paintings, breaking walls, emptying cupboards, turning tables until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray." Ikenna's madness, out of control, ends in bloodshed and despair.
There is very little light in The Fishermen; it's a relentlessly somber book that still manages to pull the reader in even as it gets more and more melancholy. The few scenes of carefree childhood joy are clouded by the prospect of what's to come, and Obioma is unsparing when it comes to writing about death, grief and the increasingly tragic destruction of an already beaten down family.
As dark as Obioma's prose is, though, it's also beautiful. His use of language is rich and hypnotic, and nearly every page is filled with an unexpected and perfectly rendered description. Abulu, for example, "subpoenaed tranquil spirits, fanned the violence of small flames, and rattled the lives of many," while the boys' mother "owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm."
Many parts of The Fishermen read like an incantation, albeit one that slowly turns into an elegy. It's hard to overlook the religious themes of the book — a priest tries to shoo the boys away from the river, but they pay him no heed. And when Ikenna initially invites his brothers to join him in his new hobby, he tells them, "Follow us, and we will make you fishermen!" It's almost certainly a reference to the book of Matthew, when Jesus tells Simon Peter and Andrew "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."
Things don't work out for Ikenna, of course, but they didn't work out for Jesus, either — at least in this world. The Fishermen might be bleak, but it's an excellent debut that does a very good job wrestling with some extremely difficult themes. Obioma writes with sophistication and inventiveness; he's obviously deeply in love with the English language, and it shows. This is a dark and beautiful book by a writer with seemingly endless promise.