‘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 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.