The Famished Road by Ben Okri

IMG_1445Twenty-five years is a long time to wait to read a novel. To be frank, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. The Famished Road by Ben Okri won the Booker Prize in 1991 and has remained on various bookshelves of mine since then. There was, I discover, a reason for that. Azaro is a spirit-child: normally they are born and die young many times, living in a sort of paradise the rest of the time. Azaro, however, decides he wants to experience human life, to live normally. And so he does. That’s it, really. The book traces his childhood in the room he shares with Mum and Dad and the time he spends in Madame Koto’s bar. Just the two locations, more or less, in 500 pages. It’s not an experimental novel in any way. It might have been better if it were: there are no shifts in tone, and the narrative is resolutely linear. For a lengthy story about a spirit-child experiencing the poverty, violence, deprivation and wonder of post-colonial Africa, this is perhaps a surprise. It certainly makes it a slog. There is very little real tension because every narrative problem can be solved if the spirit world is involved without recourse to logic. On the 1991 Booker jury, The Famished Road was up against Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow and Roddy Doyle’s The Van among others. The judges must have absolutely hated them. True, there are moments of beauty. And at times I was struck with a sort of admiration for Okri: he had actually been bothered to keep churning this stuff out, page after fantastical page of it. Dad’s boxing matches, the latest riot at Madame Koto’s, another political rally…it seemed impolite not to keep reading. A final point. Dustjacket quotes are obviously not to be relied on in court but one from Linda Grant of the Independent on Sunday has shone out at me every time I picked up this book, before putting it down again. She wrote: ‘When I finished the book and went outside, it was if all the trees of South London had angels sitting in them.’ I’m very pleased for Grant. I wish I felt the same.

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