In many lists of recent literary fiction novels The Famished Road by Ben Okri is mentioned as being important. It also won the Booker Prize. Although I knew nothing about the book or its story I thought that I would read it for my 60 Books from 60 Years challenge. This is yet another long novel (I didn’t consider length when I chose the books to read for this challenge and I probably should have for many of them have been substantial and this has slowed me down quite a bit) and it is set in an African country which is not named but which is probably the author’s homeland of Nigeria.
The book is a folk tale as well as a modern novel. It tells the story of Azaro who is a spirit child. He asked to be born into a human form but was expected to return to the spirit world quickly. Instead, he decided to remain as a human and to grow up and as a result he is plagued by the spirits who want him to return to them – they do everything they can to persuade or to trick him into returning to the spirit realm.
Azaro is born to parents who don’t know what he is. They are poor and his father picks up occasional manual jobs and his mother sells things in the market. They live in a poor village where people are often in debt and hungry. Azaro is surrounded by spirit activities many of which are malicious. Frequently he is taken captive and has to make his own way home. He is often tricked and experiences quite a lot of violence – these are themes which echo throughout the book for many characters.
The village is targeted by the Rich Person’s Political Party and the Poor Person’s Political Party. There seems to be no difference between the two and both of them try to deceive the villagers into voting for them. Azaro also spends time with Madame Koto who owns the local bar and sometimes is fond of Azaro and sometimes drives him away. She attracts sex workers and men who cheat others to her business and becomes involved with the political parties and so she becomes wealthy but unhappy.
The main theme of this story is that you can’t trust anyone because they may not be what they seem. No one prospers in this book, even those who try to cheat others. Violence surrounds Azaro and everyone suffers because of their poverty.
I found this book very long and, sadly, often tedious. I tried to work out why I wasn’t enjoying it and realised that it is because it seems never to progress. There are lots of events but they all seem to end the same way with Azaro and his family in debt. It seemed very repetitive. Things change but they never seem to move forward. I realise that this is only my perception because this book is highly thought of but I didn’t find the writing engaged me enough to make up for the lack of an overall story arc. Apparently there are two sequels to this story but I shall not be reading either of them.