48. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
The first Gothic novel allegedly came to Walpole in a nightmare. That sort of surreal, look-over-your-shoulder feeling permeates this hundred-pager. It's set in the fictional kingdom of Otranto, where an ancient curse is about to overthrow the third-generation usurping ruler Manfred.
Walpole writes in his second preface (in the first he claims to be merely the translator of some Crusade-era Italian), that he wished to make his characters "think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions (8)." While the speech is the high-flown type that would be expected of a romance, I do think Walpole largely achieved this goal. While the coincidences and adventures are amazing, the characters seem like people I know. Manfred's submissive wife Hippolita behaves out of loving and motherly motivations, even though in a way modern women might decry. Their daughter Matilda is the shy, dreamy little girl down the street. The princess Isabella is the good-natured, good-principled type with an appropriate dash of spice. Even the hero Theodore is not uber-manly or flat.
Castle of Otranto will take you through a maze with an uneasy feeling, leaving you flushed but satisfied. It's an old little gem, especially when you reflect that it was the first of its kind in a style that inspired the Brontes, and influenced Austen and Dickens.
49. The Famished Road by Ben Okri
I've spent a lot of time agonizing over what to say about this book. In the end, I think I enjoyed it, but I was definitely ambiguous at parts. The reason I didn't love it so much was the "indeterminacy" of meaning throughout. A lot of contradictory symbolism and metaphors are used and there are a lot of fanciful episodes that do not seem to be metaphoric. Okri is beyond anything I have ever encountered before, I would not quite classify this as stream-of-consciousness or magical realism, though it has elements of both.
The Famished Road is told from the point of view of Azaro, a boy growing up in a poor Nigerian compound. Azaro is a spirit child, one who has vowed to return to the spirit world as often as possible, and die unborn, premature, or early in childhood in the world of the living. The spirit child is an old Yoruba myth, and such children are feared and hated. Azaro, for this once, defies his friends and decides to stay. His life is filled with spirit visions and his friends in the other world constantly connive to bring him back to them.
Azaro's parents are both very full, interesting characters. His father works as a load lifter, but aspires to be a boxer. His mother hawks goods. Unlike everyone else around them, his parents risk beatings and censure in order to support "the Party of the Poor" against "the Party of the Rich."
The Famished Road is a legend often referred to in the book, of a road that gobbles up travelers. The road goes on and on forever, from the world of the living to the world of the spirits and everywhere between.
Aside from these very basic plot devices, the reader has to fashion all of the meaning. The only direction Okri points in is that there is none, but I think he was counting on his readers to defy him. Read it and decide for yourself.
One more to go!