Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
The novel, tightly controlled and rooted in traditional storytelling, offers a microcosm of the larger implosion of Nigerian society. It won Obioma the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award and was deserving of its place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist... The story unspools in great detail, the chi not wishing to miss anything that might soften Chukwu’s judgment, but what emerges is an intricately wrought and powerful study of a man caught in the jaws of fate... This is a powerful, multifarious novel that underlines Obioma’s status as one of the most exciting voices in modern African literature.
Despite its loquacious and digressive prose, Obioma’s first novel had a potent narrative and geographical focus. Yet here the action is impeded by overwrought descriptions, fatuous dialogue and unremarkable flashbacks. There’s something neurotic about Obioma’s writing, as if he wants to convey every passing thought he’s ever had, so that we can see exactly what he sees, but this leaves no scope for the reader’s imagination. It doesn’t help that Obioma tells us all about the habits of man before making his characters conform to them. There’s a lot of cringeworthy writing too. Here’s one example: “It struck him that the unguarded burst of joy had been the aetiology of his undoing.” And another: “He would not be deterred by the inflorescence of blood or its affluent spattering all across the room.” ... A more serious failing is Obioma’s treatment of women. They are present either to be worshipped or pilloried for the protagonist’s undoing, their bodies ejaculated into or tortured to facilitate his journey.
His story is told not by him, but in the voice of his chi: the Igbo guardian spirit who inhabits him. The chi is not a guiding presence, but a witness to, and chronicler of, Chinonso’s actions... It’s a unique narrative device. The chi is wise and all-knowing, and has lived through many eras inside many bodies, which gives it the ability to connect the historical past with the setbacks in Chinonso’s life. The chi remembers the era of the Aro slave raiders; it remembers the horrors of the Biafran War. These dips into history are quite wonderful — they anchor the story within a broader cultural context, marking this tragedy as one of many in the grand and inevitable flow of time...But there is also a risk to this narrative strategy. Establishing intimacy between a reader and a character can already be a delicate dance, and in this case the use of the chi clouds that relationship by creating an enormous psychic distance, limiting any deep understanding of Chinonso beyond the chi’s analysis.
The most powerful sections relate to an Igbo proverb used as an epigraph: “If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.” Chinonso’s crescendo of anguish, which involves racist cruelty, is linked to the fate of persecuted minorities, including slaves transported to Virginia (the book’s title translates roughly as the cries of the oppressed). But despite flashes of searing brilliance, most of this novel reads sluggishly — its realist pages pedestrian, its supernatural detours like wading through astral sludge.
Obioma’s prose style is full of grand rococo flourishes, expansive to the point of excess. The chi indulges in copious digressions and many references to ancient wisdom. Quite why it has to explain in detail how the celestial and human spheres work to their Supreme Being is unclear. However, fans of Ben Okri will recognise Obioma’s spirited dedication to remembering old beliefs as western modernity encroaches, and the world he creates is pungently real.
The chances that Chigozie Obioma’s second novel would match, let alone surpass, “The Fishermen”, were slim. Mr Obioma’s debut, a tale of four brothers who play truant and go fishing—and the trouble that ensues—was a hit in 2015. A stage adaptation that transferred from the Edinburgh Fringe to London last year was a sell-out. Happily, his follow-up, “An Orchestra of Minorities”, is a triumph: a wholly unsentimental epic that unspools smoothly over nearly a decade, it is set with equal success across two continents, employing myth and spirituality to create a vibrant new world.
...buried within the extravagance, there is a good, straightforward, very human, often moving and sometimes comic novel with a strong and simple plot... Obioma is very evidently a writer of real talent. I’ve no doubt that this novel will appeal to many and that it will be a great success. It will surely win prizes and there will be chatter about its mythic qualities... I hope that this novel will make him so much money that he can get out of the classroom, and write novels which will delight ordinary readers more than teachers of literature.
Where his Booker-shortlisted debut, The Fishermen, a boyhood adventure in 90s Nigeria, felt like the work of a born storyteller, his new book – a mystical star-crossed romance – is more polished, more painstakingly constructed and harder going, at least to start with.... As in The Fishermen, Obioma’s figurative language is rich and vivid. A bad memory lingers “like insects around a glob of sugarcane, crawling into every crevice of [Nonso’s] mind”. It can be pleasingly literal-sounding – Nonso puts off a difficult conversation by “push[ing] it like a thing with wheels into the future” – as well as comically graphic; Nonso, on telling Ndali’s father what he does for a living, feels like “a man whose extremities were bound and was then thrust naked into the central arena of a village, with nothing to hide himself”.
This second book from the young Nigerian author whose debut, The Fishermen, reached the Man Booker shortlist does not quite escape that difficult second novel syndrome. It’s overlong, raggedly structured and freighted with rambling digressions. Yet almost every page trumpets the gifts of a writer who can make his language soar, wheel and pounce like that pitiless avian deity the hawk, ‘borne on violent wings and merciless talons’....Obioma brings his untiring flair for metaphor and parable, proverb and myth. Pithy images cut through the sprawl and meander. ‘Your ears have been patient,’ our spirit narrator tells his divine listeners. Obioma’s readers will need patient ears as well. He rewards them, though, with the rejuvenating music of his prose.
Obioma’s frenetically assured second novel is a spectacular artistic leap forwards. Warm, earnest and often beautiful, The Fishermen was impressive, although its narrative voice was at times too formal to be fully convincing. There is nothing tentative about this new book, a linguistically flamboyant, fast-moving, fatalistic saga of one man’s personal disaster... Few contemporary novels achieve the seductive panache of Obioma’s heightened language, with its mixture of English, Igbo and colourful African-English phrases, and the startling clarity of the dialogue. The story is extreme; yet its theme is a bid for mercy for that most fragile of creatures – a human.
Like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe before him, Obioma fashions an allegory of post-independence Nigeria and the cruelties of the contemporary world. The prose is over-ripe at times (“even the hems of the garments of his brightest days were fringed with threads of sorrowful darkness”), but no matter. West Africa, with its pantheon of animist divinities and juju lore, is unforgettably evoked. You can almost smell the hot strong breath of the land in this brave gallimaufry of Greek myth and pre-colonial Igbo cosmology. If the writing drags a little towards the end, there is no mistaking its majesty.