Four brothers, ranging in age from 15 down to 9, are drawn to the forbidden river which the community has deemed dangerous. They fish there every day; fishing consumes them; they talk about being fisherman; they compose songs about it and they do not care about anything else. This simple boyish adventure results in tragic consequences.
The story is narrated from Ben’s point of view and takes place in the mid-nineties. He looks back on his 9 year old self, two decades later and realises that it all went wrong for the family when their disciplinarian father was transferred from Akure in the west of Nigeria to Yola in the north, 1000 kms away. Much as their mother begged him to take the family along because she doubted her ability to manage without him, he refused. He was concerned because historically the area was known for violence against their tribe, the Igbo tribe.
A neighbour discovered that the boys had been fishing at the Omi-Ala river which is thought by the community to be dangerous and is even under a curfew. She reported this to their mother who was “deeply shaken by her ignorance despite living in the same house”. She castigates them in English as a sign of her ire and when their father returns she breaks the news to him. He is furious and they are severely whipped. It seems an over-reaction until you understand that his fury is due to the aspirations he has for his sons; he has designated a career to each of them and is giving them a Western education to this end.
This beating sets off a spiral of revenge because Ikenna, the eldest boy, the one who they all look up to, the one who is their leading light insists that Iya Iyabo, the women who reported them is punished. The predictions of Abulu, the madman who roams around naked and performs bizarre actions in public, are also plaguing Ikenna. This creates a rift between him and the other brothers. He becomes disobedient, suspicious and violent until they realise that the Ikenna “who was once their brother had been bottled in a tightly sealed jar and thrown into an ocean.” The inevitable happens but the nature of its unfolding both shocks and surprises the reader.
In telling the story of this family’s descent into horror, the writer interweaves aspects of Nigerian politics into the narrative such as the brothers having a chance meeting with MK Abiola. The tension between contemporary life and traditional beliefs is a strong theme as evidenced by Ikenna’s belief in the madman’s prophecy. Community life exaggerates the impact of such beliefs, characterised as it is by gossip, exaggeration and close living quarters.
The dialogue is colourful and reflects the idiom of their indigenous languages, in particular morals, fables and specific turns of phrase. This can also be amusing as the parents use idioms and then explain what they mean lest the boys take them literally. Another aspect of the novel that is very pleasing is the way it is structured. Each chapter introduces a specific theme and is named after creatures or objects from the natural world such as eagles, snakes, locusts or leeches. These creatures personify a particular quality in a character or provide a rack on which to hang the theme of the chapter. This gives the novel a rhythm and structure which is comforting and gives the reader a sense of the familiar.
This has all the elements that make novels by African writers so appealing; lyrical, idiomatic language; a society still squirming under the influence of Westernisation; an experience of all the senses and a compelling plot.