Families have always provided a rich vein of inspiration for authors looking to examine people, and this year’s Booker Prize longlist shows that there is no sign of that slowing down. I want to talk today about two quite different novelists—a first-time Nigerian man, and a well-established Irish woman—who are both interested in how families in their respective contexts cope with stress.
Despite being a first novel, The fishermen never feels anything less than steady and assured. It is a fairly simple presence: one day, four brothers are out fishing at the local river—a forbidden pastime. On their way home, the local crazy man, Omi-Ala, tells the oldest that he will be killed by a fisherman. This sets off a chain of events that will, inevitably, change the family in ways no one could imagine.
At first glance, this might sound more Harry Potter than Booker longlist. But in Akure, where God is king, and human law seems flimsy at best, these four brothers are free to roam the streets, particularly since their father has gone away for work, and their mother is left at home with the two youngest children to look after. And so, in the absence of any steadying force in their lives, these boys are completely and utterly enthralled by the stories of Omi-Ama and his abilities. The oldest is no more than 13 or 14, an age where these kinds of stories really get into your head and mess you up. And so it is with Ikenna, who really truly believes that one of his brothers is going to kill him.
What is perhaps most terrifying about this is that at each step of this descent into madness, for these brothers, their actions are completely logical. What begins as a little bit of innocent rebellion against their clearly insane older brother slowly and carefully turns into something far more horrific—and though perhaps in the hands of a lesser author, these actions could be considered contrived, Obioma’s ability to turn the screw on his reader so methodically is perhaps the greatest strength of The fishermen. Though the characters are well-drawn throughout, it is the narrative structure that is perhaps most impressive here. Despite the chaotic nature of the city in which they live, and indeed the lives of the brothers themselves, it is easy to be caught up in the suffocating atmosphere of a household living in fear.
And yet, much of the writing is lyrical. Obioma begins each chapter with a beautiful metaphor that he spins out throughout the entire chapter, never letting up. Contrasted with the quite intensely psychological violence that is taking place both within and without this family—while the four brothers bear the brunt of this violence, their mother’s rapidly deteriorating mental health in the face of what she is attempting to control is another subtle but necessary touch—this style never veers toward feeling flowery or purple.
If The fishermen is the story of a family slowly unravelling, then The green road is its mirror image. Anne Enright has always been known for her ability to get inside the workings of a family (which is why The gathering won the Booker in 2007), and this novel is no different. But while The fishermen is about one family living under one roof, The green road explores what family means when each member is scattered around the globe.
The first half of the novel is essentially made up of four short stories: seemingly keen to move out of home as early as possible, the Madigan children find themselves far away from their country home, unwilling to think of their mother left behind. Dan runs to New York in the 80s after a failed stint as a student priest—the biggest problem being his love of men. In the 00s, his brother Emmet has run away to Mali, and though he thinks he has found his soulmate in another aid worker, he cannot seem to find the right way to talk to her. Constance is stuck at home with a husband who loves her but doesn’t seem to care that she is spending the day at an oncologist. The youngest, Hanna, has just had a baby with a man, though is finding it hard to come to terms with this, particularly since it also means coming to terms with her drinking.
Each of these sections, by themselves, is a perfect slice-of-life story that draws each character perfectly. None of them seem to be able to have a functional relationship with their significant other, and struggles to reconcile what they want from life with what they have. Despite being on the other side of the world, Dan struggles to come to terms with who he is, and this leads to perhaps the most touching part of the entire novel—a tiny but perfectly formed look at how the AIDS epidemic ravaged an entire community that spent years looking over its shoulder in an attempt to see who was next.
The second half of The green road, however, loses some of the momentum that had built up over these vignettes—as these characters gather for a combined Christmas, Enright has to change gears to allow all four—five, in fact, if you include their mother—characters their place on the page, and doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. Rather than ending with a sense of purpose—whether positive or negative—the narrative trails off as these characters, so vivid in their own lives, are forced to act as search and rescue for their frail mother, who has wandered off into the wilderness. Maybe, though, this loss of individuality in the family setting is what Enright wants us to see: forced by a false sense of duty when coming together as a family unit, there can be no space for individuals wishing to strike out on their own.