The Last Gift of the Master Artists
by Ben Okri
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Pub Date 04 Aug 2022 | Archive Date 04 Aug 2022
Head of Zeus, Apollo
'A magical take on Africa before the arrival of the Atlantic slave ships – a world of art and artists, lovers, storytellers and philosophers... The beauty of Okri's prose is [...] the overwhelming star of the show' Independent
'This is a story of a people on the eve of catastrophe. Others can tell of the catastrophe itself. I want to see the people in the last days of their innocence.' Ben Okri
By a riverbank in Africa, two lovers meet for the first time. They make a promise to meet again the next day, same time, same place, but only one of them shows up. This sounds like the beginning of a love story, but it's more than that, for this breath-taking tale takes the reader into the heart of a vibrant world, a complex and intriguing civilisation of warriors and kings, philosophers and artists, parents and lovers. A world and culture which is about to end, for glimpsed on the horizon, seen but unsuspected, beautiful ships with white sails are waiting...
First published as Starbook in 2007, Ben Okri has spent many years rewriting this epic novel, set just before the arrival of the Atlantic slave trade. He has sought to bring to it a greater simplicity, to make the political and historical implications of the story clearer. Now titled The Last Gift of the Master Artists, this is a work still more dazzling and unforgettable, and more relevant to our world than ever before.
Praise for Ben Okri:
'Ben Okri is that rare thing, a literary and social visionary, a writer for whom all three – literature, culture and vision – are profoundly interwoven' Ali Smith
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 9 members
“The Last Gift of the Master Artists” – Ben Okri
A young man and a young woman meet on the banks of a river of Africa. He is the son of a king, in line to the throne, seeking knowledge about the world and his place in its mechanisms. She is part of an almost magical tribe of artists and sculptors, creators of beautiful works and statues that are interpreted and admired for years afterwards.
The lives of the two lovers cross and entwine across an almost dream-like landscape, their romance taking place in a world full of foreboding. A statue is created showing people in shackles, leaving their homeland to a new land of hardship and suffering. There are rumours of a “white wind”, that causes gaps to appear in the world wherever it blows, causing people and things to disappear. All this plays out behind a story of mystical, innocent love in the face of hurdles both great and small, physical, and spiritual.
I’m going to have to review this book on face value but be aware that this is a rewriting of Okri’s 2008 novel Starbook. Upon completion, Okri was disheartened to discover that, despite his book being set immediately before the arrival of European slavers and the start of the transatlantic slave trade, few if any readers and reviewers noticed this aspect. This version of the book sets out to make this theme more prominent in light of contemporary acknowledgement of historical and current justices.
Having not read the original, I can say that whatever it was like before, the theme of slavery and the loss of innocence it brought is VERY clear in this book throughout, and this constant sense of foreboding is always present in the book. As for the rest of the book…. It’s not my thing at all. It’s a hazy mythical tale with a lot of classic tropes (mistaken/hidden identity, love at first sight) set in a tale of dreams and hidden worlds that a lot of people will love, but just isn’t something I get on with. It’s beautifully written, if overlong in points for me (not much happens in this book, plot wise), and I imagine the love story will appeal to many, but not me.
Seek out if you want a romance with beautiful writing, mythical leanings, with a darker story residing beneath the surface, this is worth your time. Many thanks to @netgalley and @headofzeus for letting me read a copy of this.
It was a strange feeling reading this very beautiful book. Strange because in the 2010s I read Starbook, and this new novel is that novel re-told. I didn't have a copy of Starbook to compare what has changed, but there seemed to be more here, more depth, chapters and scope. But then my memory of that reading has left on sensations, rather than events.
The story is myth. There isn't truly a story, more images, beautiful pictures, very elemental in its nature. It is not going to be a book for everyone, but it is one that if you are willing to surrender to its scope, will bring you in and leave you breathless.
Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for the ARC.
I don't really know what to say about this book as I don't think anything I say would do it justice. I hadn't read the original that this book was a rewrite of so I went in blind and it is a beautiful read.
It pays to read this book slowly and with intent.
The poetic imagery is simply gorgeous. When I get this in paperback, I will absolutely be highlighting all the exquisite lines that made me pause just so I could read them again.
I thought the element of historical magical realism was also done really well. There were so many ideas and concepts described within the societies that felt truly novel and fascinating. I did feel at times, however, that some descriptions strayed into a sort of magical/spiritual version of gender essentialism. Beyond that, I had a strong sense of each individual character, their personalities and hopes and enjoyed the arc of their lives.
The use of anaphora was overwhelming at times but I don't have much experience with poetry and can see how it filled out a richer understanding of the scenes/characters described. Time is also quite distorted through long stretches of description where it feels like we have travelled for centuries but have actually stayed within a few months or years of a character's life. Again, I can see how this has the effect of making the stories feel beyond reality and magical, even if I had to readjust my perception of how much time had passed.
Overall, The Last Gift of the Master Artists is a book I would undoubtedly recommend to anyone looking for a poetic, poignant read full of beautifully interwoven stories that will crush your heart but give you hope in just the right measure.
Thank you to the publishers and to NetGalley for this ARC.