For this review, I’ll be writing about The Famished Road by Ben Okri. This is a book that I received from NetGalley and is published by Open Road Integrated Media. Thank you to both for giving me a copy for this review! When I read the description of this book on NetGalley, I was intensely intrigued because the story sounded so completely different than most of the books that I usually read. The main character in the book is an abiku, or spirit child named Azaro. So, you might be wondering: What exactly is a spirit child? Basically, Azaro is a boy that lives in between the realms of life and death. Whoa. I’ll definitely explain this more in the summary. I was mega-excited about the book obviously because the main character is interesting and awesome pretty much right away. The book is part of a genre called magical realism that I’ve never actually been immersed in before. I embarrassingly and tragically had to look this one up. This book mixes the magical world with the normal, mundane reality that we all live in. Azaro is used to seeing the magical stuff all the time, but it’s still pretty weird and scary for him. Basically I was not sure how connected I would feel to the main character. While I think about this, let’s look at the summary!
We meet our main character, Azaro, and we realize pretty quickly that he’s special, and can see spirits all around him constantly. In his early childhood, he gets really sick and everyone thinks he’s dead. Yikes. Azaro’s parents call an herbalist, who tells them that they need to pay for a super pricey ceremony to separate Azaro from the spirit world. They decline this one because of the cost. The reason this was kind of a dicey decision was because if Azaro stays connected to the spirit world, he will be sick all the time or get in weird accidents and probably die at a young age. Well, that escalated quickly… Anyway! Azaro starts to grow up, seeing that he has this awesome gift for predicting the future. So he knows that he should run from a house that almost immediately bursts into flames. He runs from his blazing home and gets kidnapped by a weirdo policeman and his wife. Yikes. Azaro uses his psychic mind to beg for help from his mother, so she contacts an herbalist for help. Expensive, but she has no choice this time. Azaro’s mom rescues him with the help and careful instructions of the herbalist.
“The road will never swallow you. The river of your destiny will always overcome evil. May you understand your fate. Suffering will never destroy you, but will make you stronger. Success will never confuse you or scatter your spirit, but will make you fly higher into the good sunlight.”
– The Famished Road
But what about their fire-damaged home? So, obviously, they have to get a new place. When they find a new place to live, a wild party is clearly in order – the family has a lot to celebrate. I mean, their son is not dead and is reunited with his parents, they have a new place to live, and everything is pretty awesome. For a while. When the time for an election comes around, we finally start to see where this story is really headed. There are political parties for the rich, and political parties for the poor, leaving a lot of people really confused about which politicians are being honest and who they can really trust. With promises of electricity and road maintenance, individuals like Azaro’s family start to feel the pressure and the citizens of the town turn against each other.
As I’m writing this review, I’m thinking how completely appropriate the timing is, considering the circle of absurdity that has become of the 2016 election in the United States. Is this actually happening?! Gah! The crazy political shenanigans that are happening right now kind of helped to make this book relatable for me. I had a better grasp on the confusion and tragic nonsense that seemed to pervade this entire narrative. So, what did I love about this book? I loved the political content and general confusion that I related to in my own way. I loved the novel’s more human stories about love, loss, and fear of the unknown. What do I not love about this book? I didn’t really understand the purpose of the magical and spirit imagery in the book until the end, and I wished I could have understood it much sooner. I’ll admit that I’m new to this genre, and maybe I just need a bit more exposure to this type of book, but I felt super confused for most of the novel. To be honest, I found this book a little frustrating to read. I personally wouldn’t recommend this book unless you love the magical realism genre and feel super comfortable with it. I’m just not sure that it’s my style or that I feel comfortable reading books in this genre.