Ben Okri’s new novel is a fantasy tale set on ancient earth, in the days before we lost our souls to global conquest and technology. It features a land where magic is an accepted part of life, and art – art for its own sake, that is, not for money – is the highest human endeavour.
Summarising the plot is a fairly light task, since, despite the book’s length, very little happens: unlike other fantasy-type novels, Starbook aims to interest readers through its depth of description, not through the dramatic unfolding of events. In the first of its four parts, a sensitive prince falls for a mysterious maiden (the nomenclature bears this generic, fairytale style throughout), but then, sickened by the evils perpetrated against the downtrodden people in his country, he falls into a coma. In part two we meet the maiden’s tribe, a group of mystical artists who can create works that literally send people mad with their brilliance. In the third part a white wind begins to erase portions of the land and its culture. The prince then awakens from his illness, takes a job as assistant to the maiden’s father, and tries to reunite with the maiden, which leads to a short, concluding fourth part.
There is a moral undercurrent throughout – it is difficult, say, to miss the implication that this is a world whose people know less than we do on one level, and yet at the same time know very much more – but it remains vague until the third part,