My choice for our July Book Club read was Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, a novel which won the Booker Prize in 1991. I had previously heard of it as a revered work, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it when I began to read. The spirit world, and how spirits interact with humans on earth, is focused upon throughout, and the narrator of the piece is Azaro, a ‘spirit-child’, who lives in a ghetto in an unnamed African city during British colonial rule.
At the beginning of The Famished Road, the story is engaging – provided, of course, that the reader is able to suspend his or her disbelief. Magical realism abounds from the first page, and a dreamlike haze is woven within Okri’s words, so that one never quite knows what is real and what is imagined. He blurs the lines between fiction and reality in quite an odd way. However, the story soon leaves this intrigue behind, and becomes almost cyclical in the violent scenes it presents, the harm which befalls Azaro and his parents, and the way in which they use food – which is unfailingly described as ‘delicious’ – to comfort themselves. There is no real thread of plot leading from beginning to end; rather, days in Azaro’s life are described one after another, so that the whole becomes incredibly repetitive. Something about this made the entire novel feel rather off-kilter, rendering it both uneven and inconsistent. Some of the scenes also made me – a self-confessed squeamish reader – feel rather sick.
The first person narrative perspective did work well on the whole, but there were occasions in which it felt a little flat. Azaro was often void of emotion at what should have been the most challenging episodes in his life, and he felt two-dimensional in consequence. I did not grow to like him as a character – something which I think is important in such long novels in which you, as a reader, have to invest a lot of your time. Perhaps if Azaro had been given a realistic range of emotions, and had handled events in different ways occasionally, my opinion of him would be different. Some of the imagery and descriptions used were nice, but they did lose their power in their constant repetitions. Okri’s writing style and the way in which he has presented his story felt to me like a culmination of Salman Rushdie’s and A.S. Byatt’s work in places. Sadly, neither are authors whom I particularly enjoy.
The sense of place is not overly strong, and I do not feel that Okri has made the best use of the social and historical elements which should have surrounded and overpowered his characters. It was used as an occasional backdrop rather than an all-consuming and oppressive presence. Whilst the political context can be quite interesting when viewed from a child’s perspective, this element of the novel was overdone, and lost all of its interest quite quickly.
The ending really let the whole down for me. Whilst the majority of The Famished Road ranged from okay to relatively good, I found the ending staid, trite and unnecessary. The literary technique which Okri used in the final paragraph (one which I will not mention so that I do not give away any spoilers) is one which I highly dislike, and which I have been told for years at school and University never to use because it really puts off the general reader.
The Famished Road is certainly different, but it is not stunningly so. I believe, rather cynically, that it is such a hyped novel merely because it has won a prestigious prize. There are many works which I have read in past years which are under the radar in terms of prizewinning, but which have completely blown me away with their storyline, prose, ideas and characters. I shall be focusing upon reading more of these such novels in future. The Famished Road is not an awful book, but I would have no qualm in terming it mediocre, and I doubt that I shall be seeking out any more of Okri’s books in future unless they come with an incredibly high recommendation.