Goodreads is generally trash, but it is good for one thing: looking up reviews when you’re stuck on writing your own. Or, more to the point, you need to shore up your opinion about a book that seems to go against the grain. My first impression of The Fishermen was that it’s a good book that does several things quite well, but doesn’t really come together and feels a bit unfinished. I was uncertain: did I just not get it? Was it the cultural context?
I doubted myself because I had bought into the hype: the many glowing professional reviews, the constant favourable Chinua Achebe comparisons, the Booker Prize shortlisting. The Achebe comparisons in particular feel lazy. Things Fall Apart is directly referenced in the book and uh, they’re both Nigerian? I know, they’re both mythic and tragedies and what not, but calling Obioma the “heir to” Achebe feels premature at best.
Anyway, Goodreads knows what’s up:
The first quarter of the novel, especially, is drenched in foreshadowing (not always subtle, nor do the plot turns often rise above the predictable).
But much too much of the time I felt like I was reading a shitty first draft. One with potential, but that needed much more talented or much stricter editors than this manuscript benefited from. For every gorgeous sentence there were fifteen clunkers, absolutely terribly constructed sentences and embarrassingly bad attempts to grope for a metaphor or turn of phrase that just didn’t work. Probably most irksome for me was his clumsy use of flashbacks: an epic failure of the book’s structure.
That said, the ornate style weighed on me after a while (not every one of the many many metaphors is felicitous) and I would have preferred to spend more time on character development, because the seeds of the characters are fascinating but remain rather schematic, then on the over elaborated literary tropes that weigh the novel down. (A touch MFA, one might venture).
The expectations were dreaming-of-my-wedding-dress high at the start; I felt giddy with every new metaphor and took notes, for god’s sake… But then the second half of the book happened.
These are all from three and four star reviews, by the way. Goodreads reviewers tend to agree that the premise is good, the first half is promising, but things fall apart (sorry) in the second half.
Obioma did several things really well, especially the dialogue and characterization of the family. I loved the way the parents switched between languages, depending who was in earshot and how serious the discussion was. Mother “spoke and thought in parables” and Father had a strangely formal way of speaking, using gentler words the angrier he got (watch out if he calls you “my friend”).
The relationships between the four older brothers, the “fishermen”, was also done really well. The shifting alliances and the pain of growing apart, though presented here under dire and near-mythic circumstances, should be familiar to anyone with close-in-age siblings.
The actual plot and its ties to 1990s Nigerian politics and society (their 1996 Olympic gold medal in soccer is as integral to the plot as the 1993 coup and Abacha’s rise to power) were murkier. There was a lot of ground to cover in a book of under 300 pages narrated by a nine-year-old (who I didn’t find overly credible, speaking as the mother of a nine-year-old myself). If this story is a parable, as is heavily suggested, both in the book and in the back cover copy, the moral seems to be “revenge is bad” which feels a little stale.
I’d nitpick some more, but, a few weeks on, I’m struggling to remember the details. Another reason I turned to Goodreads!
All that said, I still might be interested in his new, and newly-Booker-longlisted novel. The Fishermen read very much like a debut novel by a young author. An Orchestra of Minorities sounds like a very different beast, and if I can get over the terrible title and/or it makes the shortlist, I might have to check it out…