The Age of Magic, published by Head of Zeus, is Ben Okri’s first novel in seven years. The author won the Man Booker Prize in 1991 with his novel The Famished Road.
The blurb heralds The Age of Magic ‘intoxicating and dreamlike… a mind-blowingly beautiful book’. The premise of the novel, whilst rather simplistic, is rather interesting. On their way to film a documentary about happiness in Arcadia in Greece, eight ‘weary filmmakers’ spend three days and two nights at a Swiss hotel overlooking a lake, each of them altering whilst they are there: ‘In those days seven people were needed to film such a journey. Along the way they were filming travellers, asking what their idea of Arcadia was, what their ideal of happiness might be. They were making a journey to a place, but in truth they were making a journey to an idea’. Okri writes: ‘They did not notice how the journey was altering them. They did not notice how each place they had arrived at, stayed in, and passed through, was subtly transforming them’.
Okri demonstrates throughout the strength which nature has upon us: ‘the travellers will find themselves drawn into the mystery of the mountain reflected in the lake. One by one, they will be disturbed, enlightened and transformed, each in a different way’. We slowly meet each of the eight involved within the project in subsequent chapters. Okri gives just a little away about them each time; all he tells us about Husk, for example, when we first meet her is as follows: she ‘was thin and efficient and neurotically beautiful in her floral dress’.
The structure within The Age of Magic is interesting; it is split into separate books, each of which is rather short, and the opening chapter consists of just one sentence. Those already familiar with Okri’s work will not be surprised that the novel is largely philosophical and is filled with quite profound musings on human nature: ‘On the whole, Lao thought, we don’t like people changing on us. It means we have to change too, and we dislike making the effort’. The concepts of beauty and fulfilment wind their way throughout, and it contains some quite interesting ideas: ‘To live is to love, evolve, create. To live is to be replenished by the origins’. Magical realism seeps in from time to time, as ‘the lake cast a spell over the world’, and existential conversations are had between various characters as it goes on.
The Age of Magic deals largely with the notions of self-discovery and indentity. Okri presents different concepts well, and the relatively quiet storyline which he has created works as a steady platform for the many ideas which manifest themselves as the novel gains speed. Whilst Okri is perceptive and an intelligent writer, and the novel certainly has depth to it, there is something oddly detached about The Age of Magic; we do learn a fair amount about the characters, but cannot feel much compassion for them due to the manner in which they are presented and the novel is told.