Maya C. James examines Ben Okri’s prayer for the living – locus online


Prayer for the living, Ben Okri (Head of Zeus 978-1789544596, £ 14.99, 240pp, hc) October 2019 (Akashic Books 978-1-61775-863-8, 216pp, hc) February 2021.

that of Ben Okri Prayer for the living offers a simple suggestion at the start: read slowly. That’s wise advice: if you go through his words too quickly, you might miss a fateful turn in a story or phrase that will steal your soul. Slow reading in the case of Prayer for the living means savoring every word, phrase, and story, even if it’s unclear which direction they’re aiming for. But that’s the adventure and thrill of Okri’s collection: you never know what shocking ending or mystical place it will take you. In each story, Okri takes us on a journey through worlds that are only accessible in dreams and the moments before death.

Originally published in 2019, Prayer for the living offers 23 stories of different lengths, genres and styles. While the collection is made up of short stories, its formatting reminds me of the verse form. “Prayer for the Living”, the short story from which the novel takes its name, has allusions to “From the Republic of Conscience” by Seamus Heaney. In this tale, a protagonist searches for the face of his loved one through destroyed cities and discovers that the dead are happier than the living. This story is about a place of great moral authority and ruminates with literary flair, almost like a sequence poem.

Okri plays a lot with gender and form. In its entirety, Prayer for the living reads like an elegy, or a winding road that winds between the material and the immaterial. Only Okri doesn’t skip those wrapped locations. Rather, his stories focus on the hidden paths our hitchhikers, drivers, and the curious take. Some stories are written in the form of “stoku” – a mixture of history and haiku. Some stories are fables, others lightning fictional tales about Boko Haram or the sinking of refugee rafts in the Mediterranean. Most of the characters, ranging from a mysterious poet to a young girl obsessed with her dollhouse, are in transit in one form or another. They usually look for something amorphous, like the biggest lie in the world in “The Lie”, or an indescribable sensation that haunts their dreams and makes their reality unbearable. They are not quite ghosts, but beings who have sought journeys for dark ends.

Okri toys with location and time. We travel to Turkey, the Andes, Great Britain and Nigeria, among others. Some places don’t even need names – they’re just for the dwellers of threshold spaces, purgatories, and simple waiting rooms between worlds. Okri’s life is also on the pages – influences from London and Lagos are evident, especially in the stories set in their respective countries. I enjoyed “Alternative Realities are True” for its Sherlock-Holmes inspiration and the characterization of local neighborhoods near Badagry Road in “In the Ghetto”.

Prayer for the living does not fit perfectly into a particular genre, even in the broader speculative genre. It’s certainly not magical realism, nor another easy two-word summary. Moreover, it is a book whose success is not measured by the rhythm. Rather, his success should be measured by how well he can conjure up a deep and startling restlessness and disillusionment, and how long that feeling lasts after the last page.

“Dreaming of Byzantium” is a story where Okri’s greatest strengths are evident. In it, a man tries to reach the city of Byzantium through a myriad of practical and mystical means. His frustration manifests itself in mapping, unsuccessful attempts to get to town, and waiting for an answer in a cafe. For a while, that’s her whole life – an intense yearning for a place fates seem to keep locked away, and the weight and lure of dreams unattainable. This desire has a deeper meaning – it’s a story of wanting to go to a place that one cannot find, but knows that one’s destiny is linked. Okri backs up this magic with breathtaking prose and intensely rich detail. Like many other stories in this collection, it can dwell on details, but never gets lost.

Other stories, such as “The Secret Story of a Door” and “The Overtaker,” invoked a deep fear of the awe and outbursts of satire found in other tales. It ends with a poem entitled “All we do”, which nicely sums up the major themes of the story.

Prayer for the living creates beauty in the empty spaces and the confused lines between reality and myth. His stories rarely assert moral truths, but when they do, they are often stated in riddles. No matter where Ben Okri takes his readers, he does so with a firm and confident hand, even in ambiguity.

Maya C. James is a graduate of Georgetown University’s Lannan Fellows Program and a full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. His work appeared in Line of stars, Strange horizons, FIYAH, Soaring: for Harriet, and Georgetown University Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently on a long list for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019) and was featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Writers’ Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism and the ‘imagining sustainable futures for communities at risk. You can find more of her work here and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more in the June 2021 issue of Location.

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