- Monster Mash
640 pages; Cloth, $24.00
Perhaps the best way to begin describing Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the fourth and latest novel from Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James, is to mention how creatively recombinant the book is, both in terms of its African-based setting and its literary approach. That is to say, yes, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is literary fiction, but it also makes use of key elements of mystery and detective novels, fabulist and fantasy stories, the picaresque, macabre horror, the quest novel, and several other popular fiction genres to tell its tale. Furthermore, James' geographical and social references aren't limited to one specific African region or culture. Instead, they crisscross the continent to make the imagined land of the North Kingdom, where the book is set, read like a slurry of African-based cultures, languages, fashions, religions, and legends.
The book is narrated by a man known only as "Tracker," a bounty hunter whose sense of smell is so acute that it allows him to find and follow people across great distances. Tracker is the eponymous "Red Wolf" of the title—the other half of the title refers to "Leopard," a literal black leopard who can shapeshift to human form, and who becomes Tracker's trusted friend and occasional lover. It's best to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf almost as a series of interlinked novellas, each functioning as a sort of thematic bildungsroman wherein Tracker details either key points in his life, his quest to find a missing child, or sometimes both. The novel opens with Tracker a prisoner in jail, recounting aspects of his mysterious past to an unnamed interlocutor and servant of the South Kingdom, geopolitical rival to the North. Tracker tells the so-called "Inquisitor" of his attempts with a constantly changing—and individually ethically challenged—group of mercenaries to track down a mysterious boy. To say why the boy is so important and why he must be found would be ruin one of the mysteries of the novel, but what can be mentioned is that the significance of Tracker's quest and the completion of it is what drives the novel's plot.
(SPOILER: It's quickly revealed that the boy has been captured by monsters, a coven of vampires, to be precise, all drawn from different regional African legends. It should also be noted that the monsters in the novel, those made up as well as those drawn from legend, are worth mentioning because many of them are so well described, well used, and horrific enough as to inspire nightmares. James takes great pains to connect these monsters to the book's overarching tropes and themes, and the result is a dense, sprawling text where dozens of characters—and indeed, some of the monsters serve as antagonistic characters in their own right—come and go, weave in and out of Tracker's wandering, elusive, and at times obfuscating narrative).
That said, early on in the novel Leopard bluntly tells Tracker that "No one loves no one," hinting at the power of and destructive nature of intimacy, or lack thereof, that ultimately forms one of the novel's core themes. It's this idea, the idea of love as both a healing and a destructive force, that animates most of the characters and explains their motivations. "No one loves no one" is ultimately something that Tracker sets out to simultaneously prove and disprove, and part of what Black Leopard is about, then, is not only the things we will do and lengths we will go in order to love and be loved, but also what happens when we fail to succumb to the emotional fragility required to love other people.
But of course, love's opposite also makes an appearance in this text. That is to say, another theme that emerges in the work is how hatred and violence changes and dehumanizes us. Almost all of the principal characters have lived through a corrosively violent act and can now be said to be going through some form of post...