The Stories in Ben Okri’s Prayer for the Living Move between Reality and Myth

The book has been described as “playful, frightening, shocking,” one that “will make you think, or make you laugh.”
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Ben Okri's Prayer for the Living.

Ben Okri's Prayer for the Living.

Booker Prize winner Ben Okri’s latest collection Prayer for the Living spans an array of characters, contexts, and styles, cemented in evocative storytelling.

Here is a synopsis from its publisher, Akashic Books:

Topical and timely, Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri’s new collection of short stories blurs parallel realities and walks the line between darkness and magic. Playful, frightening, shocking—these stories from a writer at the height of his power will make you think, or make you laugh. Sometimes they’ll make you want to look away, but they will always hold your gaze.

These are stories set in London, in Byzantium, in the ghetto, in the Andes, and in a printer’s shop in Lagos. Characters include a murderer, a writer, a detective, a woman in a dream, a man in a mirror, a little girl, a prison door, and the author himself. Each one of these twenty-four stories will make you wonder if what you see in the world can really be all there is.

“The stories are concerned with the political and spiritual implications of our grasp of what constitutes reality,” Okri said in an interview with The New Yorker. “They blur reality and dream. In the collection, there are twenty-four stories and one poem. Some of the stories are stokus—a form I made up in the aughts, which is an amalgam of the short story and the haiku. Others are long tales. Some are what you might call flash fiction. But all the stories, even the most political ones, are investigations into the nature of reality, which must be the most contested thing in all existence. Our sense of power, our ideologies, our politics, our loves, our fears are all bound up in it. Whether the stories involve famine, the violent deeds of Boko Haram, the impossible desire to get to Byzantium, or the warping of the world in a quantum thriller, they contest the idea that the nature of reality is ineluctable.”

Ben Okri by Georgina Chapel Associates via Tank Magazine.
Ben Okri by Georgina Chapel Associates via Tank Magazine.

Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. He won the Booker Prize in 1991 for The Famished Road, and his novel Astonishing the Gods was selected as one of the BBC’s “100 Novels That Shaped Our World.” His work has been translated into more than 25 languages. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a vice president of English PEN, and has been awarded the OBE as well as numerous international prizes and honorary doctorates.

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The Los Angeles Review of Books called the collection a “deliberate assemblage of universal truths that explores what it means to seek and to live.” Locus Magazine said, “Prayer for the Living creates beauty in the empty spaces, and the confusing lines between reality and myth.” Publishers Weekly called it an “essential reminder of the timeless and vital nature of storytelling,” and Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, “a diverse yet consistent collection, mind-bending and provocative in a host of styles and milieus.”

Prayer for the Living was published by Akashic Books in February 2021.

Paula Willie-Okafor
Paula Willie-Okafor is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. She is a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she is custodian of The Writers' Community (TWC). Her writing has appeared in Kissing Dynamite Magazine and Praxis Magazine.

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