Booked All Week

and next week, too

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

with 9 comments

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.

Written by Emily Jane

January 16, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in Novels

Tagged with ,

9 Responses

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  1. This book is on a challenge list and since I’ve got a copy it means I’ve to read it. However, having heard of, several times, its challenging themes and read and having read a difficult book (The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer) and another demanding book (Absalom, Absalom! by W. Faulkner), I think it is only fair to defer this to another month, perhaps March.

    But you’ve captured brilliantly what would work as a brief look at the book. I’ve read Incidents at the Shrine (a collection of short stories) by Okri and I know how difficult it is to review his works. His mind seem to jump between worlds. He’s definitely and always a difficult read.

    Nana Fredua-Agyeman

    January 16, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    • Thanks Nana! It’s a VERY difficult book to write about. I think you’ll really like it, but I agree that you should give yourself a break before tackling it. I would love to read some of his short stories.

      Emily Jane

      January 19, 2012 at 1:38 am

  2. I love what you said about the worldview. I remember loving this when I read it, but it’s been so long that I need to read it again to remember all the reasons why. Plus I suspect I’d get more out of it now.


    January 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    • Thanks! I think this is a book that can, and should, stand up to many re-reads. There’s just so much in there!

      Emily Jane

      January 19, 2012 at 1:39 am

  3. Thanks. That sounds like a book I want to read.


    January 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    • I hope you do mdbrady, and that you get as much out of it as I did!

      Emily Jane

      January 19, 2012 at 1:40 am

  4. this is one my all time favourite books he has written two follow up Okri is a writer I love and maybe should review more on the blog as I have all his books ,I saw him a couple of years ago talking and he is so passionate about the written word and how it connects the world ,all the best stu


    January 22, 2012 at 11:35 am

    • Oooh what are the follow-ups? I would love to read more of him, he sounds like an interesting guy.

      Emily Jane

      January 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm

  5. […] so as not feel completely that I’m cheating somehow (though I know overlap is okay). I read The Famished Road by Ben Okri last month, too, so I’m already one book into this […]

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