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.
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.