Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.
Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:
This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.
But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.
In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.
That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.
This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.
I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.