Exploring Nigeria through Magical Realism

While my “jam,” so to say, lies with YA literature, I do my share of reading adult literature, and while I may not enjoy it as much, there is merit to many of these more mature novels. One such novel lies in the genre of magical realism. Critics tend to disagree on the fine points of this genre but the basic nature of magical realism usually involves magic being an accepted part of the world the characters live in – namely our world. Such is the case in Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road.


This book delves into Nigeria in the late 1900’s following Azaro, an abiku child – a child who has made a pact with his friends in the spirit world to return as soon as possible (basically to die at the first chance) – who chooses to stay in the world of the living, kept here by his love for his family, especially his mother.  However, because of the promises he made before birth, his spirit friends will not let him go so easily and they send spirits after him to bring him back to them.  As Azaro struggles to stay with his family, the lines between the world of the living and the world of the spirits and of dreams becomes blurred and what becomes clear is that ours is not the only reality.

In this fascinating novel, Okri uses African beliefs to tell a story of humanity, of the corruption of greed and selfishness, the results of colonization and the need for unity if Nigeria is to become a stable and prosperous nation, and the bonds of family.

While I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in African culture or spirituality, I would caution that this novel is not for the faint of heart.  I personally found myself despairing at the lack of loyalty between characters, the depth of human greed, and the violence seen at the political rallies, not to mention the difficult narration of a boy who does not seem sure of much of what he sees or experiences.

Additionally, if you life solid, satisfying endings, this book may be one you wish to skip.  Ben Okri said in a n interview that he wants readers to finish his books but not finish them. (Below is a YouTube video of the interview).  And he writes this book’s ending that way – in a way that finishes the story and yet lets the reader know that the book is not really finished at all.



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