From the Booker prize-winning author of The Famished Road comes this bewitching novel. It is a modern fable about the relationship between love, suffering and creativity. Set on an enchanted island, Astonishing the Gods is shot through with the gentle magic of Ben Okri’s imaginative prose.
Okri’s fifth novel is an interesting challenge to review, being as it is, a short novel with huge scope. It’s about a nameless man who sees himself as invisible and after much travelling finds himself at a strange port, which is the start of a journey into the meaning of his own experience of life.
To add any more plot would ruin the very point of the book which is the road to self understanding. The protagonist and reader are taken on a journey of discovery and contemplation about life, how we experience it and what we really learn, or hope to learn and perhaps even how to transcend it.
It’s a very visual story, opulent in both language and imagery. Set in an enigmatic dreamlike state, it becomes a timeless spiritual quest, which has a complex grandeur about its metaphysical nature. The created world sparkles and although at first appearing to be a utopian place, there is an underlying cruel current which seems oddly apt.
There is plenty of symbolism in the prose and its abstract feel – the meandering of the story, the often flowery language loaded with arcane subtext – means there is a presence of the intangible, the spiritual. Those philosophical questions are something that has always haunted our race and the world changes, keeping it in grandeur which mirrors our further understandings and maturity.
More often than not, books like this are usually found to be more about style than substance but this isn’t the case here even if at first it may appear so. Beyond the philosophising and the eternal questions of a life none of us can fully conceive, there is also a layering of familiar representations from as diverse sources as the Bible, 1001 Arabian Nights, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Dante amongst others.
The complex nature of the ideas leaves the book open to interpretation but for once the object of the story is not so much the conclusion but the journey of understanding and of the process of attaining such. Books like this are challenging and this is certainly one for those who like to ponder and not to rush to conclusions, this reader will definitely be returning to its pages and the messages contained within soon enough.
Watching the news I find that there is plenty in the book that resonates and as we seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again – as history attests in so many instances – maybe we need to take a step back and look at what defines us and what all these experiences we have actually mean. For if you ask yourself many questions, you will never be short of something to ponder upon.