Goodbye Ben Okri’s The Famished Road

Have you ever thrown a book away in frustration, or been tempted to do so?

Some years ago I found a novel in the litter basket in the bathroom.   It turned out this was a deliberate action by my husband to symbolise his anger with the book. I knew from his deep sighs over many nights that he hadn’t been enjoying it but I hadn’t realised it was so bad that he didn’t feel it was enough to put it into our pile for donation.  Only the grand gesture would suffice for him.   I’ve never felt compelled myself to actually throw a book away but I came oh so close with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.image

I started reading this as part of my Booker Prize project. It wasn’t one I was particularly looking forward to starting but I’d had it for about three years and wanted to clear some space on the shelf.  Since winning the prize in 1991, the novel has gained a reputation as a landmark work for creating a specific African version of magical realism. Some commentators have put it on a par with Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children in terms of its importance.  Okri exploits the African belief in the coexistence of spiritual and material worlds through his main character Azaro. He is an abiku or spirit child from the ghetto of an unnamed African  city (most likely in Nigeria given Okri’s origins).  Though he lives in the mortal world, his sibling spirits from the spiritual other world constantly harass him and send emissaries to try and get him to return to their world.

My tolerance for magical realism isn’t high at the best of times but I did manage to get to the end of two other Booker winners that use this technique, Midnights Children and The Bone People. At least they were well written. The same cannot be said about Mr Okri.

The first sentence was a warning of what I could expect through more than 500 pages.

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

I suppose this was meant to be lyrical, mysterious even. To me it read like a bad pastiche of the beautiful opening of Genesis. Nonsensical too. How could a river become a road unless it was diverted and then engineers constructed a road following the original path. But then why would a river be hungry and for what? A Big Mac maybe?

What followed wasn’t much better. When Okri wasn’t throwing things at us that I suppose he thought would be magical, mysterious and hence wonderful, he gave us pedestrian narrative of the “I did this. Then I did that” style. After 80 pages and with the knowledge of hundreds left to read, I abandoned the book. The Booker judges clearly were mesmerised by this, but this is one reader who was left decidedly unenchanted.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on March 10, 2015, in Africa, Book Reviews, Booker Prize and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I read this years ago and found it tough going. I can remember nothing about it now only that I did read it. I do seem to remember liking it much more than Midnight’s Children which I really disliked.

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  2. I’m still “reading” this. Actually I stopped a few months ago at around 100+ pages. There are times when I found it interesting, but most of the time, I just didn’t know what was going on. I think what really annoyed me was that it was repetitive and a bit aimless – there doesn’t seem to be a plot apart from the boy being lead away by spirits who want him back to their world.

    Despite that, I still want to finish it, someday, but maybe not anytime soon.

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  3. Thank God – so it’s not just me. I blamed the Wisdom-Teeth-Situation then for not getting it and not finding a way into that book at all, and felt guilty for not trying again for so long. Hurrah – don’t need to try now any more – feel very relieved. Thanks 😉

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  4. My bookmark sits at page 156. I was struck by the sense that I was in for an endlessly repetitive journey and lost patience. This is my problem with many books that run into the fable/magical realm. Within the 100-200 page range the results can be very effective. Run beyond that and there are fewer writers who can pull it off. I really wanted to like this book and I did for 100 pages, but then, well, there were so many more pages ahead…

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  5. Oh feel awful I love this and 4ead follow up books I think Jackie writer you have to let the atmosphere and African myths and legends drift over you .I feel it was a shame for Okri he maybe won the booker to early in his career .

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  6. I didn’t get frustrated by this book, but I did get the feeling I wasn’t understanding it all. I think the reader needs to know a lot about African mythology to appreciate it. I loved certain sections, but I can see why you abandoned it. I hope you’ve moved onto something more enjoyable!

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    • My tolerance level wasn’t sufficient to let me get to anything that I could consider enjoyable. I’ve read plenty of other books where a knowledge of local culture would have helped but my lack of that knowledge didn’t stop an enjoyment. If the book is well written the. You can get through the barrier of insufficient knowledge but not the barrier of poor writing.

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  7. One of the few books I started but did not finish. I gave up right in the middle. I cannot say what would have come next, but the extra 170 pages I read were exactly like the 80 pages you read. I think that is what did me in – it was all the same, the same, the same.

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