Book review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James

This novel, by the Man Booker Prize winning writer Marlon James, is ambitious, intriguing and in some ways flawed. It is an attempt to write contemporary epic set in, I presume, Africa. Many critics have already declared it as such although the word “Africa” never appears.

Marlon James PIC: David Hartley/REX/Shutterstock

It certainly draws on certain tropes and folklore from sub-Saharan Africa. James is not the first to bind contemporary relevance to myth: writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o did the same with Wizard

Of The Crow, Amos Tutuola did something earlier with The Palm-Wine Drinkard (much praised by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre), and more in My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Recently, there have been astonishing works in the same vein by writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, author of Lagoon and Who Fears Death.

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This is a form of epic, although I fear it may inspire the same reaction in some readers as Dr Johnson’s famous line on Milton’s Paradise Lost: “One of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.” It is a hefty 600 pages, and is, apparently, only volume one of a trilogy. The accompanying press release breathlessly compares it to Tolkien, who limited himself to rather fewer pages, and George RR Martin, who did not. It has maps and – I happily confess this – I always love a book with a map. Fantasy is the most difficult of genres, since it must make its own rules and build its own world. In both cases, James has done admirably well. But as a reading experience it leaves something to be desired.

The spring of the plot is announced in the opening sentence: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” The speaker is Tracker, a man with the ability to sniff out the missing. (Part of me thought of Saleem Sinai in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children). Tracker is being probed by an Inquisitor – how this plays out may be for a future volume – and recounts his stories of being asked to find a child and what truly transpired.

This involves a vast cast of allies, enemies, demons, ghosts, slavers and lovers. Among them we have a man who can turn from human to leopard, a witch, a huge being – an Ogo – who does not like being called a giant (a bit like Fezzik in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride), a turncoat policeman, a water sprite, a buffalo that can laugh and various vampires, necromancers and “mingi”, who are deformed children taken under Tracker’s care.

Needless to say, finding the errant boy is not as easy as it seems, and is apparently part of a wider geopolitical struggle between “The North” and “The South”.

If this is an epic it is both old and woke. The North and The South resemble Judah and Israel. Tracker and the Leopard are a variation on Gilgamesh and Enkidu from the earliest epic we have. The political background has an affinity with the Sundiata Epic, with concerns over legitimacy, matrilineal succession and how the outsider becomes the saviour.

When the mercenaries gang together one can hear the echoes of The Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, and even Avengers Assemble. But it is more contemporary in terms of race and sexuality. Tracker was never circumcised and is therefore, in the mythology, both man and woman; although his predilections tend towards the beautiful men. There are a great many quite graphic scenes about his encounters, and indeed, his loves.

Although there are gruesome monsters – the ceiling walkers in particular – the worst are the “White Scientists”, creatures lacking any kind of compassion and both inflicting and creating horrors. Black is normal; white is a sign of being drained.

The style is done in a kind of strange lilt, with the use of repetition and archaism to the fore. Things such as a person being “three hundred and five and one” years old. Time is measured in moons. The grammar sometimes sounds more like Yoda than anything else – the substitution of me for I and we for us, as in “Me losing earth, him losing voice, rolling and rolling and hitting the floor below” or “no man was smarter than she”.

This kind of syntactical shimmer is part of the novel’s charm and frustration. It is a work of literature, but it is posing as a work from the oral tradition. Words like “funk” and “lightning” litter the text as much as the wine-dark sea in Homer. But here it is intentional. Also frequent is the phrase “f**k the gods”.

There is much to revel in, much to admire. But unlike many of the ancient stories, there is a lack of momentum. We know the hook at the start, but too much of the plot is “this happened… and then this happened… and then this happened”.

It is a kind of questless quest. Perhaps the major problem is that Tracker is our “window” into the sprawl of tales, and yet he remains a character with whom it is difficult to empathise. Nor does the reader care for the quarry they seek. Still: good monsters.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James, Hamish Hamilton, £20