A Booker winner’s radical new novel takes us to Iron Age Africa.
In Marlon James’s phantasmagorical world, you’ll meet men who shed their skins like snakes, hyena women who suck out people’s eyes and a boy with no limbs who rolls around like a ball. There’s a mermaid who shape shifts into a floating puddle. There’s a city made up of hundreds of “sky caravans” that dangle from ropes. Basically, there’s a lot going on.
Marlon James won the Man Booker prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, an account of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, which began as a novella but soon encompassed 75 characters, 15 years and 688 pages. Clearly, the Jamaican author found the island canvas too small. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first part of a projected trilogy on the scale of The Lord of the Rings. Imagine Toni Morrison’s fever dream Song of Solomon meets the relentless violence of Quentin Tarantino meets the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, only set in a mythical Iron Age Africa.
James has said he was bored of fantasy fiction being “super-white, super-middle class”. Ironically, the architecture of his trilogy was inspired by perhaps the whitest, most middle-class television series of recent years: The Affair, a domestic noir that uses the Rashomon effect of having each principal player tell different versions of the same events.
Here, we follow a band of mercenaries instructed by a slave owner to find a kidnapped boy. It helps that our narrator, Tracker, has extraordinary olfactory powers that allow him to pick out the reek of baby sick and the fresh musk of grave dirt above the sensory hullabaloo. His sidekicks include a moon witch, a lonely giant, an intuitive buffalo and a man called Leopard who can metamorphose into a sexy jungle cat. They form alliances, have sex and then, unhelpfully, brutalise each other. One character refers to them as “a bunch of bastards who can’t even cross a road together”.
To be fair, their mission is stressful: no one knows the name of the boy, nor why he is so valuable. And while some wish him to be found, others are invested in keeping him hidden. “There is no straight line between us and this boy,” one mercenary says, “only streams leading to streams, leading to streams, and sometimes…you get so lost in the stream that the boy fades, and with him the reason you search for him”.
You’ll need a high tolerance for convoluted plot lines to keep up. There’s a lot of rape and butchery, too: every weapon imaginable gets plunged into every orifice imaginable. But James has plenty of fun at the expense of the genre at the same time. “F*** the Gods” is a running gag. Storytelling itself is one of the central themes: the shift between the oral and written traditions plays a key function. So, too, is sexual jealousy. It’s rare for any novel to have so many gay characters exploring their feelings for each other.
Indeed, what is so radical about the novel is not only that James upends cultural expectations of speculative fiction; he also upends the ways in which gender and sexuality are depicted in the genre. Even one of the male characters says: “Such an overpraised thing, a cock.”
In recent years, mythology has often been used to explain away age-old inequalities. Meanwhile, Hollywood has been strip-mining the Marvel, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings universes to the point where nothing fertile remains. James offers fresh vistas, fresh perspectives, fresh blood — it’s no surprise that the film is already in the works. The imagery is breathtaking and the dialogue whip-smart, but it’s not flawless; it doesn’t engage the emotions quite as much as the senses. It left me dazzled, perplexed and a bit traumatised — but I suspect that was precisely what James intended.