Monthly Archive for May, 2016

A New Home

Our first meeting at the Durham branch of Waterstones went extremely well. Manager Kat had made every effort to make the transition from our previous book group venue to the current one as seamless and enjoyable as possible. We’re still the New Writing North Durham Book Group, but have been welcomed into the Waterstones book group fold with great hospitality and kindness. Many thanks to Kat and all the staff at her branch. We also welcomed two new members to the group, Anthea and Katherine.

19ROCCO-master1050-v2Our book choice for May was’ The Fishermen’, the debut novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, published in 2015 and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize that year. The novel follows four brothers in a small Nigerian village who are given a violent prophecy which shakes their family to the core.

Set in post-election Nigeria in the year 1996,’ The Fishermen’ has been described as a biblical parable, a mythological conceit. It’s the story of four middle-class Nigerian brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, who decide to go fishing in a river. They do this without their mother’s knowledge, carefully hiding away their fishing kit when they come home. This career lasts for a few weeks until a woman neighbour informs their mother who then waits until their father returns and with great drama, lets him know what his oldest sons have been doing in order for them to be punished. The boys’ father works away from home with the Central Bank of Nigeria, and having big aspirations for his sons, duly punishes them. One day the brothers meet the local oddball Abulu, who has the power of prophecy and who predicts that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by one of his brothers; by a ‘fisherman’.

‘The Fishermen’ made a huge impression, with the group commenting on the vivid narrative that drew us right in to the sights, odours and sounds of Nigeria, leaving nothing to the imagination. As readers we observed the traditional man/woman roles within the family dynamic, where even in a middle class family girls don’t need to be educated. We described the shock we felt at the descriptions of squalor and deprivation and poor treatment of the mentally ill, how a rigid belief in superstition experienced by most Nigerians can encroach on the lives of the aspirational educated middle class. This is country where life is cheap and people live and die on the streets, where a dismembered corpse lies rotting in the dusty road for weeks and those with mental illness are marginalised including the semi-naked man Abulu who roams around casting wild curses.

fishingAs a group we loved the strong bond and affection between the brothers and laughed at the moments of light relief with references to pop culture including a mention of Tesco.  I was moved by the description of one brother telling his younger sibling a story from Homer as they lie together in the darkness in the moments before sleep. We saw the relevance of the simple chapter titles, drawing us as readers into the narrative. One reader commented on the symbolism of spiders taking over the house as the story darkens and the mother slips into her spell of madness. As readers we felt that language is an important element of ‘The Fishermen’ adding to the darkness and confusion of the story. One member of the group said that Obioma’s prose made her slow down her reading so that she could savour every word. The juxtaposition of English and native languages including that of the igbo throughout the book emphasises the stark contrast between educated English-speaking Nigerians and the uneducated who cling to their superstitions and dramatic renderings in native languages when bad things happen. One reader commented that ‘The Fishermen’ was a story that ‘started dark and got darker!’ Some of us were moved by the ‘African-ness’ of the novel, while others felt the book goes beyond being a story of Africa; Obioma revealing things to the reader towards the end of his story, encouraging reflection on the deeper significance of its events.

As a group we felt the sense of impending doom throughout ‘The Fishermen’ with readers comparing the story to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, where a good but proud man is brought down by a prophesy made by a mad man. Obioma’s debut has been compared with the novels of Emil Zola and that seems apt as both offer stories of struggle and squalor where individuals succumb to the effects of powerful superstition.  Ultimately, ‘The Fishermen’ has a message of redemption and the possibilities of a brighter future.

As a newly emerging writer, we were impressed by Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, only two group members disliking it. The rest of us are looking forward to his next offering.

Our next meeting will be on Monday June 13. In the time between now and then I’ll be reading more Jane Gardam, a wonderful novelist who is much overlooked in my opinion. She writes with great intelligence, feeling and humour.

See you all next month and happy reading!