On Tuesday, I went back tot he Reading Group at Walthamstow Library. I felt a bit bad as I hadn’t managed to finish the book – The Famished Road by Ben Okri.
I don’t often give up on books, but I had got through 40% of it and i’d been pushing myself to read it for about half of that.
I wasn’t the only one to not finish reading it – in fact only one person had read it all the way through and she’d rerally enjoyed it. I think I was the only one who was so negative about it. There was too much about the book thast I just didn’t ‘get’.
It won the Booker prize in 1991, and definitely comes in the category of most ‘prize-winning’ books I’ve read, which is that they feel all a bit too ‘worthy’. A bit like any film that Steven Spielberg has made in the past 12 years – it feels all style over substance and only made with winning in mind.
It is set in Nigeria and based around Azaro who is a ‘spirit-child’. He was a spirit before he was born, and during the story, I think he was about 7-9, and he sees beings from the spirit world in this world. He lives in a shack in a compound with his parents. His mother goes to the market to peddle her wares from a basket she carries on her head, and his father breaks his back long hours every day working in the city as a loader.
There are many political rumblings, with the Party for the Rich and the Party for the Poor both being as corrupt as each other and trying to bribe the people of the compound.
There is also a LOT of violence, drunkenness and poverty, as you would expect in the setting.
But what lost the power of the story for m was the fact that I could never tell when his experiences were real, or when they were in the spirit world. There were customers at Madam Koto’s bar where he spent a lot fo time, who were all spirits, but then they kidnapped him, and he was bundled in a sack and dumped int he river, and he really did have to walk home with his feet getting all cut as he had no shoes, thus getting a beating from his father. If the spirits weren’t of this world, then how did they bundle him in the sack? That wasn’t the only time that I got confused as to who could see what etc etc – Madam Koto seemed to have an agenda of her own, and often hinted that she knew of the spirits, but (apparently) this is never really explored within the book.
I found it very frustrating. Nothing much happened either, and I finally realised that I hadn’t bought in to the characters at all when his mother was very ill and on the verge of death, and I couldn’t care less what happened to her. That was really when I decided I should give up and just put the book away.
I wouldn’t recommend this book at all – but I did find it interesting how all of us found it so different.