The Famished Road, by Ben Okri
The Famished Road is narrated by Azaro, an abiku spirit child who, according to traditional Yoruba belief, struggles to be born, maintains a close connection to the world of spirits, and is continuously tempted to return to the peaceful, blissful kingdom of the afterlife. Azaro occupies a special plane between life and death, and it is from this unique vantage point that he witnesses the increasing destitution and political violence that overtakes the unnamed West-African city in which he lives.
The book is long, dense and fantastical. I consider myself a fan of magical realism, though I haven’t read any in a very long time. In this case, there were times when that element here was too much for me and it took me a while to become comfortable with the rhythm of the narrative. Once I did, though, I was completely hooked. This story is truly epic. It’s not only about one community or any particular power dispute, but the history of Africa as a whole and it’s continuous attempts at rebirth.
The characters read like vehicles for ideas, which serves the larger purpose of the novel but was a bit distancing for me. I was fascinated by Madame Koto, proprietress of the neighborhood bar who has a mysterious interest in Azaro, and the local photographer, whose work enables visual communication with the rest of the world. But as this is not a character-driven novel, I never felt I learned enough about them. His hardworking parents, and his mania-driven father, especially, made even less sense to me as people.
What I found incredible about this novel, though, was the way in which Okri was able to represent a worldview in which spiritual and material realities exist simultaneously and co-dependently. Historical and political patterns look entirely different from this perspective, as does an imagined future for Africa. The Famished Road was not always an easy read, but it was incredibly thought-provoking and I’m glad I pushed through the difficult parts. This is an ambitious novel of big ideas, and it won’t soon be forgotten.