A compelling story with an elegiac tone, oscillating between the mortal and the spirit world and feeding us extraordinary experiences that leave us both delighted and rattled.

In most-likely post-colonial Nigeria, Azaro is a spirit child, known as an abiku, who chooses to stay in the living world despite his spirit companions’ attempts to get him to return to the land of the dead or the unborn. However, he still has his ties with the spirit world and moves between the two worlds. Life in the mortal world proves to be nothing but a cycle of tragedies; his parents sink into an abyss of poverty, political battles and the hardships that breathe around them don’t seem to reach an end.

On the literary stage, this novel is its own story – it belongs to itself, and that’s what makes it stand out and become a unique read. Ben Okri experiments with the extraordinary, with language, with imagination and creativity and writes past boundaries. The way that he manipulates words, and bends and unbends language, with rhythmic writing and often in poetic construction, makes it clear why the novel is a Man Booker Prize winner and the inspiration behind Radiohead’s song, Street Spirit (Fade Out). Azaro is the main character and the reader sees the world though his eyes and at some parts through dialogue, through his father’s eyes. He’s the lens through which we get to see how mythical elements are incorporated into real life social structures.

It is, however, a long story that is cyclical in some parts, repeating certain events without much change to the outcome. For example, each time his father goes into a boxing match with someone, we know he’ll recover with some unknown force, defeat his opponent who is usually a peculiar sort, spend days asleep and wake up with a strange new energy. Perhaps this is a demonstration of rebirth because he always wakes with a strange change in him. Regardless of that, there’s no element of surprise in some of the events. There’s also the rain that seems to always appear when there’s a heightened event. This can be tiring because it is quite a long novel, more than five hundred pages of repeated scenes only done so in different words, in employing different adjectives.

If you stick around long enough to pass through the taxing stages, you fall in love with it again and it gains momentum with its humour and introduction of changes and towards the end taking on a tone of hope. Some of the characters are also good representatives of reality and Okri succeeds in using them as brushes that paint a picture of the suffering in the ghetto, the socio-political changes that take place and the everyday life events that we sometimes don’t pay attention to. The end has a visionary tone and it’s one of my best parts, where some of the things that Okri wrote at that time have come to exist. In this day of quoting people and employing them as personal mantras I’d suggest you pick some from this book.

“So long as we are alive, so long as we feel, so long as we love, everything in us is an energy we can use.”

The strong ropes of love that bind Azaro’s family are heart-breaking and inspiring at the same time. No matter how severe their sufferings, his father continues to break his back working to feed the family, and his mother makes a lot of sacrifices and is the quintessence of an enduring maternal figure. Azaro could go back to the supernatural world that is devoid of the suffering that he goes through in the real world, but he chooses to stay and wants to make his mother happy.

This magical story is a different take on African literature as most are accustomed to. It is so pleasant to not read recycled stories that focus mainly on breathing the usual problems of Africa through simple, comfortable, familiar and straightforward storylines. It’s refreshing, arresting most of the time, a little eerie in some of the details and it’s also moving. It leaves you with something to take with and to use on your own personal journey.

Ben Okri was born in Nigeria in 1959. He is a poet and novelist, who has become an international literary sensation. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and he has received a number of international awards, such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, the Premio Grinzane Cavour and many others. The Famished Road is one of the many novels he has written, including Flowers and Shadows, Astonishing the Gods, Starbook and The Age of Magic.

Published by Nthepa Segage