I’ve wanted to read ‘The Famished Road’ for simply ages. It always stood out on any bookshelf as a chunky, prize-winning modern classic of post-Colonial literature. Then, as time passed and my to-be-read pile only grew, it seemed like ‘The Famished Road,’ despite (or because of) being an unmissable doorstop of a tome, was going to fall off the list. Forcing myself to actually start it was part of the impetus behind this year’s aspirational Diverse Reading A-Z; it’s August now, and I’ve finally succeeded in a long over-due reading aim.
With such a build up, I was somewhat surprised on starting the book to realise that I’d formed no expectations as to what it would be about. Ben Okri’s a man so I thought there might be a male protagonist and it won the Booker in 1991, so I was prepared for subtle or not-so-subtle social commentary. Despite having spent much time contemplating the front cover and spine of the novel however, I somehow missed out on reading the blurb.
If I’d been savvy with my review reading, I’d know that ‘The Famished Road’ was the story of Azaro, a ‘spirit child.’ He usually exists within the spirit world, only making very brief appearances in the mortal realm. At the start of the novel, he decides to make a prolonged stay on earth:
It may simply have been that I had grown tired of coming and going. It is terrible to forever remain in-between. It may also have been that I wanted to taste of this world, to feel it, suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it, and to have that sublime mood of eternity in me as I live the life to come. But I sometimes think it was a face that made me want to stay. I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.
Azaro’s mother’s life is certainly not a happy one. She lives in a harsh society, with random mobs and violent political parties constantly intruding into the family’s story. If this wasn’t enough, her husband is an increasingly obsessive fighter who wants to take on the world, while her son is continually harassed by frightening semi-human figures, his spirit brethren who seek to bring him back to their world.
Through kidnappings, elections, brawls and parties, Azaro’s story of his time as a mortal is dreamlike and cyclical. As the list in the above quotation shows, the narrator himself is both stubborn and tentative, fixed in his own course of action but unable to really explain why. In fact, the whole book is filled with riddles and enigmas. The setting is politically and geographically vague (elections are fought between the ‘Party of the Rich’ and the ‘Party of the Poor,’ both of whom use the same tactics and seem to have identical policies). Significant events (illness, fights with spirits, fights with people, mob violence…) break up the narrative, but rarely prove to be major turning points in Azaro’s journey through life.
I’m pleased to have read ‘The Famished Road,’ but I did find it a challenge. This was partly because I couldn’t identify with the main characters (spirit or mortal), but mostly because I kept feeling like I was missing something. Given the symbolic-sounding title and the archetypal characters, the whole novel felt like it had a clear metaphorical message that I was failing to grasp. I can see that the writing itself would be a selling point for some readers, but it failed to enchant me and so I was constantly looking for something more.
If you’ve read ‘The Famished Road’ and loved it, please let me know why. I’d be more than happy to reassess my less-than-overwhelmed reaction to a book I’ve looked forward to for so long. As for my own future plans for catching up with Diverse literary classics, the next book I’ll be tackling from the A-Z is Alice Walker’s ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy.’ I can’t wait.