Book review: Marlon James' fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf
Within the first 15 pages of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the narrator, Tracker, visits a dead king in an alternate realm to drag him back to the living; sleeps with an elderly woman he finds sitting by a river, thrusting “in and out of her, unnerved by her silence”; and recalls the moment he beat his abusive father until “his head smacked the ground so loud” that his mother screamed in agony. “There are two endings to this story,” Tracker reflects. In the first, his father dies; in the second, he lives. The novel keeps both options simmering, neither reaching a conclusive boil.
Such is the brain of Marlon James. A literary event as only happens a few times a year, Black Leopard has been preemptively dubbed the “African Game of Thrones” and kicks off a highly touted trilogy called The Dark Star. But such pop-fantasy framing could mislead readers — or at least those unfamiliar with James, who’s publishing his first book since the Man Booker Prize-winning period piece A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014). This is not a writer for the fainthearted or the squeamish; James’ visions don’t jettison you from reality so much as they trap you in his mad-genius, mercurial mind.
Brief History furiously wove together perspectives of a huge ensemble, but Black Leopard is Tracker’s story alone. (James says its sequels will retell the same events from other characters’ points of view.) An enigmatic figure who cannot remember his given name, Tracker is known for his spectacular sense of smell, making a living by chasing down society’s scum. He’s enlisted for a different mission that drives the novel: the hunt for a missing boy — his past, we do not know — for which he joins a merry band of shapeshifters and mercenaries, including an immortal gentle giant and a centuries-old witch. Tracker recounts this quest in the future, speaking from a prison cell. The first thing our hero says: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
Drenched in African myth and folklore, and set in an astonishingly realized pre-colonized sub-Saharan region, Black Leopard crawls with creatures and erects kingdoms unlike any I’ve read. (Oh, that were-hyena.) The Jamaican-born James’ prose is hypnotic in its attention to landscape: endless green forests, bustling cities, castles with steps larger than most houses. A map of the North Lands — his phantasmic canvas — is placed on the page before the novel begins; even this choice feels radical, virtuous. He writes to the very heart of African history, trauma, and imagination.
James also depicts sex like nobody else — evoking its kink, its stink, its beauty — and here he employs that skill to capture queer love, with a sensationally true mix of tenderness, vulgarity, and passion. (Less tenderly, James also offers brutally close glimpses of sexual and physical violence; again, readers of James will be unsurprised by this.) He subverts masculine norms and rails against patriarchy. There’s an ideological mission here, and at the risk of comparing two very different creations, this recalls the phenomenon of Black Panther — an intensity of purpose meeting an immensity of scale.
James’ hyperactive plotting will lose you (don’t expect much linearity), and the novel is overlong, no matter how many corners James finds to explore in this world. It’s easy to understand the impulse — he’s so dialed-in it reads as if he’s stumbling onto untouched territory by the chapter — but the fragmented narrative gets in the way of momentum. Building toward his unexpected climax, the author focuses at last and gathers his power, generating a laser beam of clarity. Black Leopard makes good on that opening line (“There is nothing left to know”) by interrogating the nature of truth and the conventions of storytelling, ideas as relevant to this wild ride of a book as they are to the context behind it — the cathartic intrusion of these places and their history, these communities and their people, kept culturally invisible for too long.
And yet: For all its political power and artistry, Black Leopard, Red Wolf triumphs in James’ swagger. He hasn’t merely produced a literary earthquake. He shows off, his stylistic flair a cocky muscle-flex. This is a concert, a production, an epic. This is a revolutionary book. B+
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Black Leopard, Red Wolf
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