Ben Okri’s The Famished Road is the first book by an African man to win the Booker Prize (1991) and is still the only book by an African man to have won the prize.
The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, who is an Ogbanje/abiku, a child who constantly repeats the cycle of life and death through being born and dying as an infant over and over again. Azaro finally decides to leave the spirit world and is born to parents that are in the depths of poverty, both barely earning enough to cover their meals and pay the rent.
This novel showcases the blunt reality of poverty. The reality of greedy slumlords, and of politicians who only interact with the people when an election is at hand. The reality of young men being hired as thugs for political parties they neither care about nor believe in. The reality of slum riots and police brutality. The reality of homelessness in an African slum. The reality of residual systems of oppression left behind by colonisers in ‘postcolonial’ nations.
The book, part of a trilogy, is one filled with fantasy and mysticism, as Azaro can not only communicate with animals, but can see strange spirits and enter into the spirit world. The novel, set in an unknown African city, engages with African elements such as juju, secret societies and the spirit world. Through the eyes of a child, we follow Azaro as he is separated from his parents and kidnapped to be sacrificed by a police officer and his wife. We follow him as he is saved by his mother and reunited with his father, as he becomes a regular at a local bar owned by a women who others suspect to be a witch.
The reader is allowed to interact with extreme poverty through the simplistic understanding of a child. The reader is able to experience Azaro’s lack of judgement at having to go to bed hungry, in seeing his mother fight to get free milk from politicians, only for it to be infested with flies that makes the whole neighbourhood sick. We are able to experience poverty as a number of obstacles to be overcome before the next challenge is revealed. Each time the family seems to be ‘out of the woods’, something tragic and traumatic occurs bringing them back to where they started.
Azaro’s world is one where the reader is able to loose themselves in the wandering mind of a spirit child. The Famished Road perfectly combines a ‘childish’ magic with brutal realities. It allows the reader to understand the vulnerabilities, lack of security and susceptibility to abuse that occurs with poverty. For these reason, I rate this book a 4 out of 5 stars.
Thank you for reading.