BEN OKRI

Prayer For The Living

Prayer For The Living - Ben Okri Book Cover Image

Topical and timely, Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri’s new collection of short stories blur parallel realities and walk the line between darkness and magic.

Is what you see all there is? Look again.

Playful, frightening, even shocking the stories in this collection blur the lines between illusion and reality. This is a writer at the height of his power, making the reader think, making them laugh, and sometimes making them want to look away while holding their gaze.

Stories here are set in London, in Byzantium, in the ghetto, in the Andes, in a printer’s shop in Spain. The characters include a murderer, a writer, a detective, a man in a cave, a man in a mirror, two little boys, a prison door, and the author himself.

There are twenty-three stories in all. Each one will make you wonder if what you see in the world is all there is…

Reviews

‘A career-spanning story collection from the Booker Prize–winning Nigerian writer that navigates the blurry line between dream and reality.

Okri’s stories are so concerned with myth and folklore, and so comfortable in the style of those genres, that his best ones sometimes feel as if written on parchment or chiseled in granite. In the eerie, allegorical title story, a man searching for his loved ones in a town devastated by soldiers finds a kind of collective solidarity with the corpses he discovers: “All the faces are familiar. Death has made them all my kin.” “A Sinister Perfection” features a dollhouse that seems to have a power to make (usually bad) things happen in reality. The narrator of “Dreaming of Byzantium” finds himself in Istanbul uncertain of how he got there or of the woman he shares his hotel bed with; his journey becomes a study in how “unreality makes reality.” Okri’s stories propose a kind of existential balancing act: If we err when we place too much faith in reality, we can also too easily succumb to delusion. “The Lie,” for instance, is a fable about a king who sends his minions out to discover universal truths only to face an uncomfortable one about himself: “Your power is unreal. It is made of air. It consists of what we have conferred on you.” The stories don’t always strive for timelessness: Three tales concern the African terrorist group Boko Haram. Nor is the mysticism always somber: “Alternative Realities Are True” is a dimension-warping detective story worthy of Philip K. Dick, and “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading” is a Don Quixote satire whose metafictional gamesmanship evokes Borges and Achebe. Okri often plays with form, as in two stories written in a flash-fiction style he calls “stoku,” a portmanteau of story and haiku. But throughout Okri skillfully embeds abstract ideas in concrete, engaging storytelling.

A diverse yet consistent collection, mind-bending and provocative in a host of styles and milieus.’

Akashic

Penetrating Okri’s mind is like tumbling down a rabbit hole, a mesmerizing trip into a landscape of bemusement and ambiguity, where time exists on multiple planes. In fact, one story about a detective investigating a crime that has not yet been committed is aptly titled “Alternative Realities Are True,” which could be the theme for this collection of tales and fables involving miniature houses, a cursed door from Newgate prison, and a mysterious mirror used by Rosicrucian spiritualists. In the devastating title piece, the narrator searches for family in the ruins left by rampaging soldiers, the agony of the survivors starkly contrasting with the hauntingly joyful songs emanating from the souls of the dead. And in the exquisite “Byzantium,” a man’s imagined idyll in Istanbul feels more lifelike than his reality, particularly when, at the Blue Mosque, he leans a hand against a stone pillar and senses a oneness with every being who came before.

LIBRARY JOURNAL VERDICT: Booker Prize–winning poet and novelist Okri (The Famished Road) creates a dreamlike atmosphere in one story, whipsaws the reader into a horrifying triptych about Boko Haram in the next, and then calms with unexpectedly gentle humor. There is something to entice or challenge every reader in this eclectic repertoire.

Sally Bissell

‘Okri is always good company and these 20-odd tales showcase his lucid prose and freewheeling imagination’ – Mail on Sunday.

‘Okri is a master of the genre: these fables are concise and otherworldly. Resplendent and lingering, they capture an ethereal plane between wakefulness and sleep with a skewed, dreamlike brutality and beauty … Okri’s magnificent twilight zone provides a surreal and unique insight’ – The Lady.

‘Okri is a master storyteller’ -Herald.

‘The reader is in no doubt they are in the hands of a master storyteller throughout’ – Belfast Telegraph.

‘Timeous, shocking and perceptive’ – TimesLIVE (South Africa).

‘An air of magic hovers over many of the tales … What really makes a tale, Okri shows, is how it is told’ – New Statesman.

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