The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

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?

3.84 is a pretty decent rating…

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.

Things Fall Apart has a lower GR rating than The Fishermen. Okay then. I had to include the “readers also enjoyed” on this one because WTF?

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…

Um this is also the premise of Titanic???
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9 comments

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2019 | Reading in Bed
  2. Laura

    I felt exactly the same way about The Fishermen (although I don’t remember feeling any more positive about the first half than the second half…) I didn’t connect to Obioma’s writing at all and I won’t be picking up An Orchestra of Minorities.

  3. annelogan17

    Hmm I don’t know much about this writer, but I can definitely agree with you that Goodreads is sometimes terrible, but alot of times it also reinforces what I’m thinking about a book. I have the Orchestra of Minorities on my shelf right now but I’ve been avoiding it because it seems too dense to read in the summer…we shall see.

  4. Literary Elephant

    This is an excellent post! I haven’t read Obioma yet, but am interested in checking out An Orchestra of Minorities because of its Booker Prize inclusion this year. It does sound promising, but since I never got around to reading Fishermen I appreciate the honest talk about it. I’ve heard some mixed things about both books, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ve only had a vague idea of Obioma’s writing. It’s nice to have a bit more of a sense of what I’ll be getting in to if I pick this one up! (And that “Readers Have Also Enjoyed” list is hilarious!)

  5. BookerTalk

    I enjoyed The Fishermen overall though I thought he was trying to be too clever with some of his descriptions. The comparison with Things Fall Apart and Achebe is ridiculous

  6. Naomi

    I like to use Goodreads for the same reasons. Sometimes someone says exactly what I’m thinking. Other times, they have such ridiculous objections to the book that I feel the need to talk about them in my ‘reviews’.

    “Mythic” turns me off a bit, but “poultry farmer” makes up for it. I will wait and see what you think of it! (if you read it, that is…)

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