Booker Prize Shortlist: 2022

Opinions inevitably vary when it comes to placing preferences for one item above another (the Oscars, anyone?). Certainly no difference here as, having read all the books on the 2022 Booker Prize shortlist, the personal burning question is – did the judges make the right call?

Shortlisted books first:
Glory – NoViolet Bulowayo
The Trees – Percival Everett
Treacle Walker – Alan Garner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka
Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout

It’s a pretty consistent list although surprised that neither Young Mungo (Douglas Stuart, winner in 2020) nor To Paradise (Hanya Yanagihara) even made the longlist – and personally would have loved to see The Colony by Audrey Magee make the shortlist.

So what of the six – and did the judges make the right call in awarding the 2022 Booker Prize to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

The last book on the list I read shores up the shortlist at the bottom of the pile. The final book of a trilogy, Oh William! is by far the weakest of the three as Elizabeth Strout continues to follow the narrative life story of Lucy Barton. It’s a pity as the first two made for great reading of a woman who came from nothing and Amgash, Illinois to become a successful writer.  Instead, whilst a tale eminently readable, Oh William! is not as commanding or engrossing as its predecessors. (60%)

At 87, Alan Garner became the oldest shortlisted author in the 60 years of the Booker Prize. An author from my childhood – the fantasies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath rivalled the Narnia tales of C.S.Lewis as holiday and bedtime reading – Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling and a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale that is difficult to categorise. (62%)

Two down and four to go – and interestingly, to my mind there’s very little between them – but unlike the judges of the 2019 Booker Prize who presented a tie with Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and Margaret Atwood (The Testaments), a decision is to be made. So, being aware that the four are interchangeable according to the day read – fourth on the list is the eventual winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, it’s a crazy ride as the story looks to identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer and narrator of the book, Maali Almeida. It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing and was lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. (70%)

Calm and reflective, Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These is short in word count, morally visceral in impact. It places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope. Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries in local Catholic convents were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. Short and capacious, it is a deeply affecting debut novel. (71%)

Glory is the novel I thought would pick up the prize. A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe, Glory is NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow up to her 2013 literary debut, We Need New Names. It’s an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accessible energy of a novel. (72%)

But my preference falls on new-to-me American author, Percival Everett and The Trees. Everett has written more than 20 novels and was Pulitzer Prize shortlisted in 2020. But few of his books have made it outside the States. Comic masterpiece The Trees will change all that. A dark social satire that directly addresses racism past and present in a bold and shocking way, it also mixes in old-fashioned pulp fiction film noir storylines of murder. It’s a page-turning comic horror of a novel: it also topped the best of the 2022 Booker Prize list for me. (74%).

Yet although it was not my preferred choice, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, because of that ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques was arguably a good call to win the Booker in 2022. My jury is out on that one.

‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut

Taut, sparingly written, The Good Doctor is a melancholic parable as a young South African doctor comes to terms with his position at the almost forgotten hospital clinic in the virtually deserted capital of what was once, during apartheid times, a Bantu homeland. Now, no-one cares about what was once a so-called nation-state. Passion (for or against such travesties of black home rule) has been replaced by indifference.

Frank Eloff is a young man escaping his failed marriage after his wife left him for his best friend. But that was many years ago with a promised promotion that never materialised. His boss, Dr Ngema, has never moved on and, in spite of her constant innovation and change mantra, little has changed with the exception of the slow denudement of the clinic itself. Few patients, few medical staff, a closed-off wing of the building, it’s all something of an irrelevance. So the arrival of recent graduate Laurence Waters, keen, enthusisatic and blind to limitations, is wholly unexpected, particularly as, in spite of the emptiness of the clinic, Dr Ngema decides he is to share rooms with Frank.

The two men are essentially different sides of the same coin. Cynical and disenchanted Frank can only watch and judge as an enthusiastic Laurence looks to take the hospital to the people – schemes involving the medics travelling into the bush to remote African villages. He’s a man on a mission, oblivious to the indifference around him – so much so he alienates himself from others, particularly Frank (but Waters being Waters, he’s even oblivious to this). A visit from African-American girlfriend, Zanele, adds to the uncertainties of the new doctor – she shares his political idealism but there’s a noticeable lack of intimacy between the two.

As Frank struggles, his old habits in the local township take on new meanings – particularly with the arrival of a regiment of men from the South African army. Incursions across the nearby border means tighter security. Frank recognises the major in charge from his days as a conscript – a brutal and sadistic Afrikaner responsible for the torture of numerous black prisoners and who is now employed by the new government. The sinister old dictator, now much diminished, who once ran the homeland also reappears having assumed to be dead. He’s to be found squatting in the old ruin of the presidential palace, tending to the gardens.

Incorporate a Cuban couple working in the hospital along with the unqualified Tehogo as a male nurse (and who is likely to be responsible for the diminishing equipment in the hospital) and Galgut offers us a snapshot of South Africa past and present – or at least a country in transition from the past into the present. Cape Town, Johannesburg are distant edifices as far as The Good Doctor is concerned – bureaucracies where decisions are made that impact the clinic without any connection to place.

The past and the future are dangerous countries; I had been living in no man’s land, between their borders, for the last seven years.

Like the wreck of the homeland capital, Galgut explores the promise of the new from the ruins of the old. But with the ghosts of the past partially incorporated into the present, with a level of apathy and indifference towards progress when family and tradition are the norm, what does it all mean? As the ex-president confides to Frank – but who will cut the grass?

The Good Doctor is a thoughtful, engaging slow burn of a novel shortlisted for 2003 Booker Prize (but lost out to DBC Pierre and Vernon God Little).

‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah

A many-layered, misleadingly simple tale of a young boy growing up in east Africa on the cusp of World War I, Paradise is a compassionate, strikingly memorable novel from the Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah as he quietly writes of people who are not normally heard.

Head-turningly beautiful, the teenage Yusuf finds himself as an unpaid servant to Aziz, a rich and powerful Arab merchant, in exchange for his father’s heavy debts. Even the arrival of the railway line to the isolated inland (fictional) town of Kawa cannot help turn the family-owned hotel into profit. Now living in an (unnamed but most likely Dar-es-Salaam) coastal port, a two day train journey from his home town, Yusuf works closely with the older, equally indentured Khalil in running the merchant’s shop and storerooms with the knowledge he will never see his family again.

From the simple life of rural Africa, Yusuf finds himself as a Muslim black African experiencing a precolonial urban East Africa on the cusp of change. The wealthy Aziz trades inland and along the coast, organising caravans into the interior for gold, ivory and animal skins, turning over considerable profits for himself and the Indian investors he partners with. But German interests encroach, upsetting the balance and freedom of movement with its increasing military presence. Yusuf finds himself on one such extended trading mission, journeying into the African interior to Lake Tanganyika and the dangerous encounters posed by humans and animals alike. But, gentle, intelligent and alert, the boy is favoured by Aziz as the expedition is confronted with ever increasing problems.

On return to the city, events transpire that lead Yusuf to the increasing awareness that for him (and Khalil) things would never change and, whilst seemingly benevolent, Aziz was the master of his enslavement. His beauty had placed him in a compromising position with both of the merchant’s wives: freedom and freedom of choice was not an option for the growing teenager. But then the German army arrives and with it, enforced conscription…

Paradise is a eminently readable melange of cross-cultural narratives reflecting the bustle of early 20th century East Africa with its centuries old Arab and Indian trading routes, and increasing European colonialism alongside the diversity of indigent black Africa. But Paradise is a coming-of-age tale – of Yusuf as he navigates his limited world to an awareness and self-realisation, of a blinkered Khalil who is grateful for the crumbs offered by his master. And with it comes that reader’s awareness (if needed) of what was to follow by Yusuf’s unexpected decision at the end of the novel.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fourth novel was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize but lost out to James Kelman and How late it was, how late… Gurnah himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.

‘Glory’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe and his sinister entourage of family members and hangers-on: Glory is all this and so much more.

A revolutionary hero of the African liberation struggle who helped free Zimbabwe from British colonialism, Mugabe as prime minister and, later, president, was accused of 40 years of widescale corruption, abuse of power, economic mismanagement and crimes against humanity.

NoViolet Bulawayo follows her powerful Booker Prize-shortlisted 2013 literary debut We Need New Names with an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accesible energy of a novel.

High Horse, once a charismatic soldier, and his elite band of Chosen Ones, driven recently by his beloved and ambitious young donkey wife, Marvellous, have held on to power since the demise of the white, human colonialists. But High Horse is ageing and, much to the concern of others, it is Marvellous who has the ear of her husband (if he hasn’t nodded off, dreaming of glory days) and the people. But corruption is endemic and other than the fear of ‘disappearing’ with an inappropriate neigh or grunt, the Chosen Ones are pretty secure with their economically rewarding sinecures.

Among the people, say it loud, say it often, appeal to the vanity and remind them of what was: the perfect ideology to keep the mutterings down to a minimum. But among the elite, the uneducated, Marvellous remains a concern – a woman and too young to have been in the wars of independence.

At the centre of the story of the people is Destiny – a young female goat who returns to Jidada, the country of her birth, a decade after disappearing. It is she who will bear witness to the revolution as she sets in motion a series of events that leads to the demise of tyranny. Rallies, religious hysteria, rigged elections all feature as the people of Jidada awaken to the reality of the world they have allowed to be created in their name.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Glory is a powerhouse of a novel, a hard-hitting satire of epic proportions that would readily be a worthy winner of the prize.

‘Booker Prize Shortlist: 2020’

2020 was a pretty good year for the shortlist but there were howlers left off the longlist – namely Colum McCann and his stunning Apeirogon as well twice-winning Hilary Mantel and the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light. But once the controversy of those ommisions settled down, did the Booker judges, according to my tastes, get it right in awarding the prize to Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain?

The 2020 shortlist:
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body 
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Maaza Mengiste: The Shadow King
Douglas Stuart:  Shuggie Bain
Brandon Taylor: Real Life

Bottom of the pile was Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga. Tense, charged, challenging, Tambudzai’s slow breakdown of personal hope and dreams is no easy read. It’s not particulalry enjoyable either – there’s a sense of inevitable disconnect, written in a style that creates a veil, a do-not-cross barrier that results in an uninvolved distancing. (50%) 

A tad better was Avni Doshi. Burnt Sugar is a tale of memory and forgetfulness for both mother (Tara) and married daughter Antara. A caustic tale of mothers and daughters set in India, it’s a surprisingly cold, distant first novel lacking a compelling voice. (52%)

The next two are neck and neck – albeit very different.

Ethiopian/American Maaza Mengiste writes of the the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupying 1935 Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. Personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  Ethiopian and Italian – all come under her gaze. (60%)

A gentle, nuanced narrative of a single discomforting weekend in the life of Wallace, a lonely, gay, black biomedical graduate student, Real Life is elegant yet strangely distant. In its difficult intimacy and Wallace’s arm’s length interaction with friends and colleagues, a veil, an impassable barrier is created denying empathic access to the complexities of raw emotion and momentary candour. (60%)

It took me a while to get into it – three attempts to get beyond the first few pages – before settling into The New Wilderness. Urgent, prescient, imaginative, Diane Cook’s engrossing debut novel sees a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation. But it’s not a didactic polemic – The New Wilderness is a humane and moving lament of our contempt for nature and, simultaneously, a moving portrayal of motherhood. (65%).

Douglas Stuart’s towering debut, Shuggie Bain, is a haunting, fictionalised reflection on his own childhood growing up gay and supporting an alcoholic mother. With an impoverished, rough and ready Glasgow setting, Shuggie Bain is raw, unflinching and uncompromising in its truths, yet in its honesty and intensity, it is also heartbreakingly emotive. At 80%, it resoundingly stands heads and shoulders above the other five books on the shortlist. My only question is would it have beaten Apeirogon?

So, yes, as far as I am concerned, the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize got it 100% right in its selection from the shortlist.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

A powerful, challenging family drama, the 2021 Booker Prize winning The Promise is a visceral menace of a novel as the Swarts, an Afrikaans family, is torn apart by death and an unmet promise.

On her deathbed, dying young from cancer, Rachel Swart elicits a promise from husband, Manie. The small house on their Pretorian farm was to be gifted to long-time domestic servant, Salome. He distractedly agrees. Unbeknown to either of them, youngest daughter Amor overhears the promise. In a country emerging from apartheid and minority rule, what evolves is a family saga spread over 40 years mirroring a country full of resentment, anger, fear – and hope. As the family unit disintegrates, so the promise remains unfulfilled as Manie choses to ignore/deny his wife’s wishes.

Seen as an unsentimental allegory to post-apartheid South Africa, The Promise looks to the moral question of the support for majority black rule and expected renewal. It’s slow in coming.

Disparate, the Swarts are united by funerals – but not grief – after the death of Rachel. Having refound her Jewish faith on her deathbed having previously married into a family of Dutch Reform Calvinists, her death and funeral arrangements are not easily handled by the fundamentalist Swarts. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging opening of Galgut’s novel as opposing family members clash and compromise, leaving seething anger and disappointment. It sets the scene for the disatisfaction and unfulfillment that is to pervade the underlying narrative of the novel.

The three teenage children, Anton (he arrives late to the funeral due to military service), Astrid and Amor (part-time narrator and moral compass of the novel) are disconnected even at this early stage and, by the second of four parts within The Promise, have all flown the coup.

Menace continually bubbles under the surface as the dwindling family meet approximately every decade for a family funeral. Each time it is more and more difficult for Amor to be contacted as she distances herself physically and emotionally from the farm and her siblings (at one point she has left to live in London leaving no contact details). It is she who constantly raises the issue of the promise. But her requests fall on fallow ground as a bitter Anton, once the golden boy, lives in the shadow of unfulfilled potential (and the Church built on part of the farm as bequeathed by the father) and Astrid comes to terms with loss of youth, looks and two failed marriages.

The Promise is a dramatic tale and provides an engrossing insight into a time and place of great flux. It is a ‘semi-detached’ telling, an odd hybrid as Amor is – and then isn’t – the narrator. The result is an ebb and flow of emotional involvement but which nevertheless draws the reader in.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tense, charged, challenging, the third novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is the story of Tambudzai’s slow breakdown of personal hope and dreams of betterment, mirroring the (not so slow) breakdown of her country and its empty promises of corrupt self-interest.

Having left her advertising job in the city, tired of the credit for her good ideas being taken by white colleagues, Tambudzai (Tambu) Sigauke finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. A regular income she no longer has, reliant on the stolen vegetables growing in Mai Manyanga’s garden. Her landlady may not notice but the arrival of a niece changes all that. In her mid/late 30s, Tambu, having struggled as a child to gain a convent education and associated aspirations, now finds her descent into poverty spiralling: the world around her seemingly caring not one jot.

Her prospects are poor, struggling with the poverty of blackness on one side, and the weight of womanhood on the other. She wants to be a success yet Tambu lives in a society of dysfunction, a post-colonial fledgling Zimbabwe at the turn of the century still finding its way. The tale is often grim, yet written poetically, even obliquely, demanding rereading of paragraphs to understand the full impact of what is being said. Like her country, a complex Tambu is unquestionably heading for a breakdown of some description. Disconnected from her immediate family, the inner demons threaten a self-destruct as she struggles to cope with severe mental health problems brought about by trauma. The eventual support provided by her European-educated cousin, Nyasha, and white German husband, Leo, is underscored by suspicion. An air of forebearance pervades her new job in eco-safari tourism in which she initially excels. But it all becomes too much. The recent history of struggle and fight (literally) for independence bears its scars on all.

This Mournable Body is no easy read. It’s not particulalry enjoyable either – there’s a sense of inevitable disconnect. But Dangarembga does little to help break this disconnect. Told in the second person, it’s a technique that normally forces the reader into identification with a character. But not on this occasion. There’s a veil, a do-not-cross barrier that results in an uninvolved distancing.

It is only after reading This Mournable Body that I discovered it was the third novel in a trilogy.

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

A milestone of African literature, first published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is an early, widely-published voice of Africa. Chinua Achebe paved the way – most novels about Africa until then having been written by condescending European authors.

Set in the southeastern part of Nigeria prior to the arrival of European colonialists in the late 19th century, Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo in the fictional village of Iguedo, part of the extensive Umuofia clan. A former champion wrestler, through hard work and determination, Okonkwo has risen to prominence and influence in the village with a large compound to house three wives and his ten children. Proud, arrogant, flawed, he’s dour and mirthless, driven by the shame in his wastrel of a father who left only debt behind on his death.

Told in a series of relatively short chapters, Things Fall Apart tells of the traditions of the village, the clan, the people (the Igbo). It’s an insight into the everyday lives – the planting and harvesting of yams, the role of men, wives, children. Okonkwo has little time for his eldest son, Nwoye – it is Ezinma, the only child of Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi, whom he favours. With her intelligence and strong will, it is she who Okonkwo laments was not born a boy.

But then, by accidentally killing a young clansman during celebrations, Okonkwo is banished for seven years to the village of his mother to appease the spirits. And it is during these years of exile that the white Christian missionaries of colonialism arrive in the remote villages.

It’s a fascinating insight into pre-colonial Africa and the disintegration of a society and its tribal beliefs bought about by the arrival of Europeans looking to ‘save’ the Igbo. Achebe looks to colonialism and traditional culture, animism and christianity, male and female, masculine and feminine as Okonkwo falls from grace, unable to prevent change through sheer force. Even Nwoye converts to christianity.

One could almost write a whole chapter on him [Okonkwo]. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. So writes the (European) Commissioner at the end of Things Fall Apart, dismissing not just the man, but a culture, a way of life in a few final words. Luckily, we had Achebe, who wrote more than a whole chapter, providing the perspective of Okonkwo and his people.

‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste

shadow kingTo be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and burn you alive. But when that particular emperor has fled the country and settled in Bath, England whilst the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupies 1935 Ethiopia, morale needs to be boosted. So arrives Minim, an illiterate peasant, soft-spoken man with the strange name that [literally] means Nothing, but who has an uncanny resemblance to Haile Selassie.

With troops male and female, wealthy and poor, having responded to the emperor’s call for armed resistance and taken to the vast, untamed landscape, so Minim is presented on a white steed, uniform perfect, buttons polished, a red umbrella in place to protect the shadow king from the blazing sun. Flanked by two proud female warriors, reaction is electric and immediate among the people – word travels quickly and widely. The emperor is back.

But all that is to come – it’s more than halfway through Maaza Mengiste’s engrossing second novel before the shadow king appears. That particular idea is first mooted by Hirut, a young orphaned female servant from the home of Kidane and Aster. Hundreds of kilometres from their comfortable Addis Ababa compound, Kidane heads his own private army of farmers, servants and stragglers against the invading forces. Or at least he thinks he does. Aster proves to be no shrinking violet, refusing to accept her expected position behind the front lines. She gains strength as the narrative unfolds. From hapless mother grieving her young dead son to an all-powerful warrior queen with Hirut following in her wake, Aster takes no prisoners. The Shadow King is as much the celebration of the role of female warriors in the Ethiopian resistance – and not just as nurses, cooks and buriers of the dead – as it is about the invasion by a wannabe European superpower looking to make up for the defeat in the 1890s of the first Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

Juxtaposed with the unfolding narrative of life in the isolated camps of the resistance and the power struggles between Kidane, Aster, Hirut and other members of the private army is that of Ettore Navarra, a member of the invading forces and the official photographer of his regiment. The building of Italy’s new empire is to be recorded for posterity. Navarra has his own personal struggles to contend with – not least the order from Rome for all Jewish personnel in the military to be returned to Italy.

It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. But this is no ordinary story of war. Fractured narratives switch from violent clashes to Haile Selassie listening to Aida whilst preparing to flee; from the sensitive Navarra forced to whip a captured prisoner to within an inch of the man’s life to a vindictive and jealous Aster keeping Hirut in her lowly place. On the way, Mengiste explores personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  from the emperor and all of his children (that is to say, all Ethiopia) and the paternalism of the Italian commander-in-chief towards his men to Kidane’s loss of his son, Hirut’s loss of her parents and Navarra, as an only child, separated by a great distance from his.

Lyrical and profound, it’s a novel of power and strength – even if, on occasions, it slips into overly-lyrical descriptions (particularly early in the novel) which result, at times, in a sense of literary fatigue and boredom. But with chorus-like interpolations adding to the mix, The Shadow King is original and, overall, propulsive as it gathers steam. In Hirut, we find a fierce young woman of charisma and single-minded determination balanced by the soul-searching uncertainty of Navarra. The novel is littered with strong yet complicated three-dimensional characters. Whilst there is no question about the morality of colonial invasion, Mengiste avoids the simple demarcation of African = good, European = bad. Kidane may lead his men for greater glory, but he is privileged and a rapist: Colonel Fucelli is deeply cruel but cares nothing for Rome’s anti-semitism.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, The Shadow King lost out to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.

‘The Fishermen’ by Chigozie Obioma

With its mix of myth, magic and more than a touch of social realism, The Fishermen is a novel deeply rooted in the tradition of African storytelling. Four young brothers in a small town in Western Nigeria find the strong bond that holds them is broken as Abulu, the local oddball, predicts the eldest, Ikenna, will be killed by one of his siblings.

Theirs is a relatively comfortable if strict Christian family upbringing. But when their father is posted by his employers to the Yola branch of the Bank of Nigeria some 1,000 kilometres away, the boys use his absence to push their luck on things forbidden – including regular fishing trips to the local river. It is here they encounter Abulu and the terrible prophecy.

Ikenna’s life unravels – mirrored by every member of the family. The fifteen year-old withdraws into himself, refusing to eat or take part in activities with his brothers. Previously inseparable from Boja, a year younger, their relationship becomes fractious with the younger sibling refusing to enter the bedroom they share: the boys no longer watch favourite television programmes together. Ikenna’s downward spiral is relentless, despite his brothers’ constant assurance they’d never harm him None of us will kill you. We are not – Ike – we are not even real fishermen. He said a fisherman will kill you. We are not even real fishermen. And his siblings lives are not far behind as tragedy is heaped upon tragedy.

The narrator is Benjamin, the youngest of the four. Obioma chooses for the narrative to be told as a recollection of past events: yet, looking for dramatic impact or innocence of the moment, there is a switch to the child’s perspective – and not always chronological. Occasionally, significant moments are retrospectively revealed. Adult Benjamin’s voice provides clarity of events.

It’s a bold and arresting first novel as the Agwu brothers are forced to confront a world that is changing around them. With his father away (he returns whenever he can), Ikenna is in many ways the head of the house. His fall impacts on his brothers, forcing them to grow up. Their story sits alongside that of Nigeria itself and the 1993 elections where the popular MKO Abiola was believed to have won the presidency. But robbed of victory, he was to die in military detention.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, The Fishermen lost out to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.