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‘The Age of Magic’ by Ben Okri **

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.

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Book Club (July 2014): ‘The Famished Road’ by Ben Okri **

My choice for our July Book Club read was Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, a novel which won the Booker Prize in 1991.  I had previously heard of it as a revered work, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it when I began to read.  The spirit world, and how spirits interact with humans on earth, is focused upon throughout, and the narrator of the piece is Azaro, a ‘spirit-child’, who lives in a ghetto in an unnamed African city during British colonial rule.

At the beginning of The Famished Road, the story is engaging – provided, of course, that the reader is able to suspend his or her disbelief.  Magical realism abounds from the first page, and a dreamlike haze is woven within Okri’s words, so that one never quite knows what is real and what is imagined.  He blurs the lines between fiction and reality in quite an odd way. However, the story soon leaves this intrigue behind, and becomes almost cyclical in the violent scenes it presents, the harm which befalls Azaro and his parents, and the way in which they use food – which is unfailingly described as ‘delicious’ – to comfort themselves.  There is no real thread of plot leading from beginning to end; rather, days in Azaro’s life are described one after another, so that the whole becomes incredibly repetitive.  Something about this made the entire novel feel rather off-kilter, rendering it both uneven and inconsistent.  Some of the scenes also made me – a self-confessed squeamish reader – feel rather sick.

The first person narrative perspective did work well on the whole, but there were occasions in which it felt a little flat.  Azaro was often void of emotion at what should have been the most challenging episodes in his life, and he felt two-dimensional in consequence.  I did not grow to like him as a character – something which I think is important in such long novels in which you, as a reader, have to invest a lot of your time.  Perhaps if Azaro had been given a realistic range of emotions, and had handled events in different ways occasionally, my opinion of him would be different.  Some of the imagery and descriptions used were nice, but they did lose their power in their constant repetitions.  Okri’s writing style and the way in which he has presented his story felt to me like a culmination of Salman Rushdie’s and A.S. Byatt’s work in places.  Sadly, neither are authors whom I particularly enjoy.

The sense of place is not overly strong, and I do not feel that Okri has made the best use of the social and historical elements which should have surrounded and overpowered his characters.  It was used as an occasional backdrop rather than an all-consuming and oppressive presence.  Whilst the political context can be quite interesting when viewed from a child’s perspective, this element of the novel was overdone, and lost all of its interest quite quickly.

The ending really let the whole down for me.  Whilst the majority of The Famished Road ranged from okay to relatively good, I found the ending staid, trite and unnecessary.  The literary technique which Okri used in the final paragraph (one which I will not mention so that I do not give away any spoilers) is one which I highly dislike, and which I have been told for years at school and University never to use because it really puts off the general reader.

The Famished Road is certainly different, but it is not stunningly so.  I believe, rather cynically, that it is such a hyped novel merely because it has won a prestigious prize.  There are many works which I have read in past years which are under the radar in terms of prizewinning, but which have completely blown me away with their storyline, prose, ideas and characters.  I shall be focusing upon reading more of these such novels in future.  The Famished Road is not an awful book, but I would have no qualm in terming it mediocre, and I doubt that I shall be seeking out any more of Okri’s books in future unless they come with an incredibly high recommendation.

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