Enigmatic, and sometimes exasperating: ‘The Famished Road’ by Ben Okri (1991)

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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.

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11 Responses to Enigmatic, and sometimes exasperating: ‘The Famished Road’ by Ben Okri (1991)

  1. roughghosts says:

    Well, I love The Famished Road for the first 100-120 pages or so and then I was done. I put it down and never went back. It is one of those books that overstayed its welcome by several hundred pages. Sadly I think that not an uncommon response.

    • If you don’t love it within the first few hundred pages, there’s certainly nothing new to grab you as the book progresses. To be honest, I’m starting to remember it with some fondness after getting any exasperation out of my system by writing about it. It’s not high on the list for re-reading though!

  2. I bought Famished Road post Peace Corps right after it came out. I fell asleep soon after. I got lost when I woke up and tried again. So many WT? moments. You have done very, very well. I know of no one who has finished it, but many who tried–many who love every type genre! Well done. I’ve never made it thru an Alice Walker either.

    • Given the dreamlike tone of the novel, I think falling asleep is a perfectly appropriate response! Do you remember managing to dream about spirits or long roads when you did?
      I love Alice Walker though, and re-reading ‘The Colour Purple’ as preparation for ‘Possessing the Secret’ has reminded me of how much the book moved me when I first read it as a teenager.

  3. I read this years ago & I remember liking it but not loving it & I only have the faintest memories of it now, triggered by your post – it’s not stayed with me, clearly!

    Possessing the Secret of Joy is so powerful – brilliant but such a tough read. I wish you strength!

    • It’s been on my radar for ages as a book I didn’t really want to read. Then I saw it in a charity shop (with the wonderful cover) and realised that resistance was futile. All I’ve read so far is the very first chapter which was hauntingly beautiful and gave me hope that I’d be able to get through it…

  4. Sarah says:

    I loved it when I read it (around the time it was published) but while I remember being blown away by the evocative and beautiful prose, the surreal elements of the novel, and feeling that i’d never read anything else like it, I can’t remember anything about the plot. Maybe it’s time for a re-read!

    • Thank you so much for standing up as someone who loved it! I know that many people must have and I look forward to having them bring me round to a more favourable state of mind about it. I do think a lot hinges on the writing style. If it doesn’t work for you, you’re really a bit lost when it comes to story and character.

  5. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  6. I remember really looking forward to this and enjoying it but feeling lost in places as well, I’ve since read some of his shorter works which I enjoyed, in my confused early 20’s I read Astonishing the Gods, which I loved, it is fable like and a little like something Coehlo might have written, but perhaps even better. A talented author no doubt.

    • Talented, yes – but not a writer for everyone nor for every mood. Thank you for the suggestion of ‘Astonishing the Gods’ which is now on the reading list for when I want to have another go at Okri.

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