I read this book upon the recommendation of a friend. My copy was styled the 25th anniversary edition and boldly proclaimed that it won the Booker prize in 1991. Clearly, this book made Ben Okri’s international fame. He has since gone on to write several books but none has probably received the critical and public acclaim as this novel.
The book is set in a fictional post-colonial town in Africa. Nigeria is never explicitly mentioned, but from the the multitude of cultural, language and food references, it seems to be heavily influenced by the author’s country of birth. The story revolves around Azaro – a child born in a hovel into poverty and deprivation. He is described as a spirit child – belonging to a world made of enchantment, inspite of which he decides to stay into the land of the living with his human parents. The novel is the story of his birth and various near death experiences as he fights against his spirit companions who are desperate to lure him back to their enchanted world.
The story is very simple – a family fighting against forces of poverty, political corruption and making their way into the cruel world through sheer effort and determination. It is however the fantastical and dreamlike flights of fancy that the author creates throughout the book that sets it apart. Azaro moves in and out of fantasy on every page as he roams through the town streets and forest lanes. He imagines fantastic beasts, demons, spirits. Characters morph into spirits and assume imaginary forms, avataar-like.
The book is most known for this fantastical flights of fancy. In parts, the book resembles Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s style in Hundred Years of Solitude. I even enjoyed it in parts. However, this is a very long book and these flights became tedious and repetitive for me. Ben Okri creates some wonderful characters – Madam Koto and the photographer being especially well crafted – but even their frequent transformations into supernatural forms started appearing random and purposeless to me.
The writing style is of a writer who does not think in English. It is difficult to describe what makes it seem so, but this is obvious from the first page. I often get the same impression when I am reading books by authors from the sub continent, not that this makes such books any less enjoyable. Just different. My own writing probably also reflects the fact that English is not my first language.
On the overall, I found the book too long and once the initial novelty wore off, it ceased to be enjoyable and felt like a task to finish.