Celestial bodies


by Ben Okri

Rider, 432pp, 12.99

AFTER FIVE LONG YEARS OF saturated silence, Ben Okri is back. Okri writes prose as sweetly digestible as chocolate cake garnished with chocolate vermicelli. Is it bad for you? Who cares! It may even, conversely, excite your mood and be hot for the soul (oh yes, the soul is a major player in Okri's cosmos). And - as is the case with death by chocolate cake - it works best if ingested slowly, in tasty narrative nibbles.

Which is exactly how Okri serves it. In page-long chapters, in breath-held bursts, with dazzling meta-phors, and virtuoso sprinkles of charged description and seer-like pronouncement. You're either addicted or repelled. No doubt you're not meant to gorge on the stuff but to savour it, ponder its meaning, pucker your brow in admiring bamboozlement at its calculated, tantalising wisdom.

Readers who loved The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1991, will fall on it avidly, its opening sentences striking deep: "In the heart of the kingdom there was a place where the earth was dark and sweet to taste... At night the forest was dark and rich with magic and enchantment... On certain nights when the moon was full and white like the perfect egg at the beginning of creation, the wise ones claimed that the trees whispered stories in the darkness..."

Just add "Once upon a time" to those opening words and you're enfolded in childhood's bird's nest. And then you wonder: will they, whoever they are, "live happily ever after" in Okri's realm of obscure immortality? Who is the hero? Who the villain? But first, we encounter the prince and the maiden who carry this tale to its rippling conclusion. We meet the ever-laughing monarch, encounter the maiden's forbidding sorcerer father and the suitors - the prince's rivals - who vie for her hand, but only in theory.

They haven't a hope. Predestination takes care of their chances. And then there's the unicorn, a river that rages and tempests, a statue that makes itself disappear, and a hidden storyteller who surfaces only fleetingly, but who gilds the tale with his rhetoric.

Okri's is an art that sometimes communicates before it is understood. It echoes the Bible in its conundrums. It rhymes like Shakespeare in its couplets. It often evokes Judaism's Book of Life. And like the New Testament, it advocates that salvation stems from pure love. Its narrator cautions against our immediate understanding. Understanding may stop you from seeing, he suggests. To find "that which is truer" we must first be prepared to abandon that which we cling to, that which blinds us. But Okri is unnecessarily cryptic: "That which we find may well be that which we have lost but which is found on a different day, when we have changed."

Still, the genre demands riddles - and the triumph of love over evil. The prince journeys to find his maiden; she cannot see him when he speaks. He is disappointed. What world does she live in? The world of dream? In the life after death? Must the prince be reborn in order to consummate his fate - "to find that which is truer"? The answer is tortuously, if sinuously, arrived at.

Starbook is wondrous, but needs more stories. There aren't sufficient to sustain its 400-plus pages - even in nibbles. There is too much interwoven abstraction and just too many vine-like sentences.

Okri is best when he shifts the action, allowing the philosophical pulse to derive its thrust from the heart of the tale, from his characters' trysts and plots and deeds. He has a diction that glides superbly. His ear is pitch-perfect, but now and then you feel he needs to step back from the text to catch the kerfuffle and baggy tangle of its occasional convolutions.

All in all, there is much to enjoy here, not least for romantics who like the pleasure of knowing that happiness will inevitably reign, that the earth will move and most likely be changed.

Somewhere the maiden comes to realise "that true excellence, true mastery, comes [to us] once or twice in a lifetime". The Famished Road was Okri's proof of untarnished excellence. Starbook glints and winks to demonstrate that the ore is far from spent.

• Ben Okri is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday 24 August.


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