Customer Review

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Style over content in a magical realist West Africa, 13 Sept. 2009
This review is from: The Famished Road (Paperback)
A bizarre and incident packed magical realist novel, 'The Famished Road' reads like an African Gabirel Garcia Marquez. The story is narrated by Azaro, a 'spirit child' - i.e. a spirit born in human form who is destined to die young and return to the spirit world, only to be reborn. Azaro, however, decides he has had enough of constant death and rebirth and tries to stick with life for a bit. The life he lives - one of grinding poverty with his downtrodden parents in a West African village - is constantly interrupted by incursions from the spirit world as his former companions try to lure him back.

I'm not overly keen on magical realism as a genre, although Ben Okri does write very nicely. Most reviewers describe the prose as beautiful, which I'd agree with. However, it is a very long book which doesn't really get anywhere - the reader becomes trapped in a groundhog day of the same sort of incidents over and over throughout its 600 or so pages. It is very beautifully written - if you don't mind style over content. But by halfway through I was fed up of reading about Azaro being tempted by spirits in the forest, his father getting into fights, or a lot of strange people coming into Madame Koto's bar.

I accept that the repetition and circularity do make their own point in some way, about the tedium of daily life and the despair of being trapped in poverty. It does evoke very clearly the picture of life in Azaro's village and the desperation of his community. The storylines about the political parties canvassing for votes in the forthcoming elections are the more interesting aspects of the novel. The most interesting character, for me, is Azaro's mother - but the book prefers to focus on his belligerent father.

If the book was about half the length, I'd probably judge it more kindly. But by the time I'd struggled through it - and it was a struggle towards the end - I'd forgotten the good points and was fed up of all the less good things which had thoroughly annoyed me by then. I gather there are two sequels, which fills me with a kind of wonder that the author managed to get published two more books of the same recycled storylines.

But then, perhaps other readers are happy to follow the advice quoted by a reviewer on the jacket - 'just buy it for its beauty'. If you are the sort of reader who will enjoy a book simply because it is beautiful - and nothing wrong with that, you will probably love this story. But if, like me, you want a bit more from a book than a nice turn of phrase, this is going to prove too long a haul to be worth it.
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