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PRAYER FOR THE LIVING by Ben Okri Kirkus Star


by Ben Okri

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-61775-863-8
Publisher: Akashic

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 the 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.