on November 20, 2001
You shall believe those reviewers who tell you this book is worth 5 stars, but only if patience is a trait of your personality.
It is undeniable that the author have an excellent command of English and a great sensibility to make the reader understand how extreme poverty and the lack of self-esteem will make you numb to the most aberrant events of life. So much, that life becomes uni dimensional. And that is precisely the reason why I rated it with only three stars.
The events, the characters, the drama, the mental scenery, all about this book is circular, without colors, plain. If you read 100 pages or 400 pages it makes no difference, the action just stand still so much that this book can also be summarized as "Azaro goes into madam Koto's bar - Azaro gets scared - Azaro leaves madam Koto's bar".
After this situation had happen 15 times, in 300 hundred pages, there comes a point you wonder why the author does not use his imagination and writing skills to lead the novel somewhere aside from the events in madam Koto's bar, in which invariably, the patrons become weird spirits or someone gets into a fight forcing Azaro to leave the bar. In other words this book is very boring.
on February 18, 2002
This is one of the most wonderful books I have ever read. It's lush, full of life, vivid, surreal, and down right eerie. If I can only write half as well as Okri, I'll be very pleased with myself. This book is long, yes. And yes, I am well versed in Nigerian history and folklore, though I am Igbo, not Yoruba. So maybe I was at an advantage and I understood things on more levels than the average reader. But it held me in a way that no other book ever has. I've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie AND Stephen King. I love all three of them. But I love Okri the most. This book was delicious.
on February 2, 2002
"The Famished Road" challenged my concepts of narrative and genre and in the perplexity (out there at the edge of chaos where all art and learning takes place) I found myself enchanted and bewitched. I've since seen the label "magical realism" attached to Okri's work and suspect that comes from people who live in a linear paradigm, a secular one.
The road is hot and dry. The smells of cooking waft from the doorways. A possessed father, a depressed mother, a bar full of dreams and a political tide... This book is special. Prepare for the magic.
on November 7, 2000
Ben Okri has succeeded with The Famished Road, where most others fail, in giving humankind one of the absolute pleasures in life - great storytelling. It is at once a tragic fairytale mixed with wondrous humour and a mad twist of irony lurking within the pages. This fabulous book is one for those who enjoy the wonders of a beautifully crafted story. I consider The Famished Road the greatest story ever told (no disrespect to the Bible intended).
on September 19, 2001
Ben Okri's creation has a very interesting premise, that of life as seen through the eyes of a spirit child, Azaro, who chooses to stay on in the world rather than return to the spirit realm, to bring happiness to the face of his mother. Simple everyday life of Nigerian peasants in a small town are described and in the passing weeks and months, relationships between characters are revealed and contribute to our understanding of a unique culture. Politics, the division between poor and rich, jealousies and envy are all part of the negative aspects of the real world which cause such heartache and suffering to people. On the other hand, the strength and resolution of the resilient characters such as the photographer and Azaro's parents, highlight the positive aspects of human nature and what makes the real world such a wonderful place and so attractive to the spirits. Azaro's world is one where the spirit realm merges with the real world and Okri's rendering of his story is magical and fascinating. However, repetitions to the story, though reminiscent of Homer's "The Odyssey", takes away the focus of the story and makes it a little draggy. Imaginative and ambitious, "The Famished Road" remains a good read, however, for readers who constantly look for something out of the ordinary.
on September 28, 2000
Ben Okri's "The Famished Road" is a long novel that has way more character and image than plot. It takes patience and effort to read this book, but for some readers it will be well worth it.
It is hard not to give an equivocal review of "The Famished Road". I would have liked it more if I had read it some years ago when I was more into writers like Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Salman Rushdie. Comparing Okri to those writers should give you an idea of what this book is like: long, complicated, often surreal (the term "magical realism" is used in discussions of this book), and sometimes confusing. Okri weaves many elements of traditional Nigerian folklore into his novel, but the form and structure are very much in the tradition of the modern English novel. I can't get help but feel that this book seems to be written for an audience of professors, grad-students, and people who are very serious about the novel as an art form. Those aren't necessarily bad things, indeed for many readers those are the best qualities a book can have. I wonder if many Nigerians have read this book, and if not, if a book popular in Nigeria might be more interesting and informative than "The Famished Road". But that's the thing: being interested in the novel as an art form is not the same as wanting to read a book to learn something about Nigeria.
Another Nigerian writer whose works are often based on African folklore is Amos Tutuola.
on February 29, 2000
A feast of beauty, love, and joy. Every page is a poem. The best book I have ever read.
Reading this book made me feel so exultant---it affirmed everything I believe, that love and beauty and joy are the reasons for living---that I handed out copies to everyone I knew who enjoyed reading (it's a long book, and not an "easy" read, but the language is exquisite). I was so filled with joy that I wanted them to share it, too.
Then the weirdest thing happened: THE BOOK ACTS AS A MIRROR. It strongly moved everyone who read it, but apparently you take from it what you bring to it. I don't know how this magic works, but it seems that the message you respond to in the book is the message that your soul is attuned to.
My environmentalist friend, for instance, was appalled at the destruction of the land; she saw nothing beautiful in the book. The friend who'd lost her mother was so moved by emotion about mothers and children that she took to bed for two days. The adoption-agency friend was angry about the plight of the children. The egocentric friend never saw any further than the surface of the plot line about power. The friend who tends toward the paranoid talked for weeks about alternate motivations for the characters. The adventurer friend was inspired to visit Africa again. And on and on.
I couldn't believe it. What I had thought was a beautiful, heart-filling affirmation of love and beauty and joy in the everyday, no matter what the circumstances, turned out to be a message only I was hearing. The book seems to reveal or affirm its readers' personalities in ways I and they didn't expect.
I've reread The Famished Road several times now, and it still resonates as strongly as the first time, from the very first line. One quick excerpt to give you the flavor: "My son, there is a wonderful wind blowing in my mind. I drank the moon tonight. The stars are playing on a flute. The air is sweet with the music of an invisible genius. Love is crying in my flesh, singing strange songs. The rain is full of flowers and their scent makes me tremble as if I am becoming a real man. I see great happiness in our future. I see joy. I see you walking out of the sun. I see gold in your eyes. Your flesh glitters with the dust of diamonds. I see your mother as the most beautiful woman in the world."
This book is so rich with hope and so full of beauty that it makes me weep.
Ben Okri, you are a genius. Thank you.
on November 19, 1998
I think there has been some kind of general misunderstanding about THE FAMISHED ROAD. The misunderstanding went on with SONGS OF ENCHANTMENT, its sequel.
I'm a scholar and I devote most of my academic time to the study of contemporary African fiction, with special care for novels written in English. Most readers have not understood the book properly, because they thought that this was pure fancy, or, worse, sheer delirium, talented though it might be.
What must be repeated over and over again is that Okri is indebted to such Yoruba authors like D.O. Fagunwa or the Anglophone pioneer Amos Tutuola. Concerning Azaro's status as an abiku (or spirit-child), many readers (and many critics in the press as well, which is really frightening!) thought that this was a new situation that Okri had made up. The fact is that abikus (or ogbanjes, the Igbo equivalent) are part and parcel of West African culture. So, Azaro's whole story is not pure fancy; it is myth in its deepest sense.
Once you realize that, everything is clearer, isn't it? The various episodes, such as the political mayhem or Madame Koto's gradual transformation, can be seen in the light of myth. The abiku child is not just a metaphor or an allegory (though Okri uses it ALSO as an allegory, at the end of the novel): Azaro's predicament means that he wants to escape his epic status to become a real person, a human being of flesh and blood. All along the novel, his double vision is at the same time an advantage and a threat.
By presenting the reader with a character who wants to become something else than a mythical figure, Okri passes a metafictional comment on writing and novel-reading.
(Author of an 84-page pre-PHD memoir: "Child characters in Breyten Breytenbach's MEMORY OF SNOW AND OF DUST, Nuruddin Farah's MAPS and Ben Okri's THE FAMISHED ROAD.)
Obviously, there is a lot that should be said or that I could say about Ben Okri's fiction, but I wouldn't have enough room here.
on May 27, 1998
Nigeria has produced some fine writers, and Ben Okri is certainly one of the finest. His voice is distinctly African and startlingly original. Although he has written several preceding works, winning the Booker prize in 1991 for The Famished Road has finally created for him the wider audience he deserves.
This is the story of Azaro, a spirit child , and one of a group who spend their time in paradise, leaving only intermittently when they are summoned to be born into the world of the living before dying and returning to paradise again. Azaro however, decides to break his pact with his fellow spirits and stay in the world of the living in an attempt to make his mother happy, and his life and the struggles of his family form the basis of this beautiful, intricately worked novel.
Ben Okri shines with his depiction of life in an African slum: the grinding poverty, starvation and frequent illness and death, the corruption of the politicians and the thugs they employ, and the discouraging tendency for each endeavor attempted to degenerate into chaos, but above all this soars the courage and bravery and persistence of people who manage to live and love in the face of overwhelming odds. The narrative weaves like a long, hallucinatory epic poem with a truly African flavor. Azaro is constantly tempted to return to the spirit world, his father, once the strongest man in his village, struggles with increasingly degrading jobs and his mother battles to feed her family and maintain her dignity as a street vendor. Then there is the powerful, mysterious Madame Koto, owner of a shebeen and brothel and occasional patroness of Azaro, a woman who is prepared to sacrifice all to her burning ambition and subsequently becomes a little too involved with the local political thugs and the evil side of the spirit world. At times this book, like Africa itself, can be a little overwhelming in its darkness and pain. But like Africa, it is magical, lyrical and intensely inspiring with a brilliant ending. I highly recommend i! t.
on December 13, 1996
"The Famished Road", and its companion "Songs of Enchantment" are among the best examples of the magic-realist tradition, and belongs on the shelf with Marquez and Allende. The birth of an African nation -- a thinly veilled Nigeria -- is seen through the eyes of a spirit-child, Azaro. His parents are poor and represent the common people. The angelic/ demonic Madame Koto is a personification of the the two-fold plight of the emerging black bourgeoise. But that's just one reading of it. The sheer scope of the novel -- over 500 hundred pages -- is drenched in imagery so rich, bejewelled and dreamlike, that you never want to leave. Such things as plot, character, and structure are meaningless in Okri's hands. This is a political fable and a mythological treatise at the same time. Echoes of the brilliant African author Amos Tutola can be glimpsed here as well: Okri Africanizes the language of imagination. You will never see things the same way after reading this brilliant novel