This is a story of stories. African stories, with just an occasional touch of Jamaica. But where and what is this Africa?
It’s an Africa of our dreams: a continent we may be familiar with, and yet, something else. It is a technicolour tapestry of legend, landscape, history and humanity. When woven together with threads of something modern, the resulting design is complex and daringly beautiful, with patches of blood red, forest green, rich gold, smoke grey.
The Red Wolf (known as Tracker) is the storyteller-in-chief. There are many other tellers of tales: witches, griots, giants, soldiers, the Leopard, shapeshifters, monsters, a slaver, a date feeder, a librarian. The giant’s story is a stream of consciousness, and likely to continue all night. Other stories fill in a bit of history that helps the reader to move forward.
All these stories are embedded in Tracker’s ongoing tale (over 600 pages long) as told to his captors – to a “Grand Inquisitor and fetish priest,” to be exact. Close to the end, at a critical and dangerous moment, Tracker has to tell a story for his life (“Will you give me freedom if I tell you a story?”) – somewhat reminiscent of the One Thousand and One Nights, the Persian folk tales in which Scheherazade avoided death at the King’s hand by telling him long tales.
The first chapter opens with a simple statement: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Ah, but which child? We ask. And why should we care about this child, as we plunge into the narrative? Who does care about him?
Now, the opening chapter is ferocious. It is angry, vengeful – and violent. It is a deliberate shock, and I actually struggled past it.
So, I might as well get this over with: There are passages that are very hard to read because of the level of violence. There are nauseating details (yes, I did feel sick at times) – sometimes embedded in what I would call “action scenes” with lots of chopping and jumping and slicing and slipping, like a video game with amplified sound. At other points, there are slowed-down scenes of – well, torture. For example, Tracker has a gruesome encounter with the Bad Ibeji. He is one of the “white scientists,” who cold-bloodedly conduct live experiments, à la Mengele. The currents of cruelty and suffering swell continually.
Tracker is more man than wolf, but he has a “nose.” He grows from an abused and naïve adolescent into a young man who holds bitterness in his heart – and a great deal of confusion, too. The reader has to work with his insecurities, his constant cursing (his favourite phrase is “F… the gods!”), his jealousies and feuds. Tracker struggles to come to terms with his incestuous family background and an inferiority complex about his tribal origins. He often irritates his companions (and perhaps the reader, too). His contempt for traditional religion and its corrupt elders regularly surfaces (“They never grow less stupid, men who believe in belief”) – as does his distrust of women. Indeed, women are invariably depicted as physically repulsive, dirty, malevolent, witches. Tracker despises and barely tolerates one of his companions, the witch Sogolon – who is quite the radical feminist. Conversely, the male characters (such as the hard-to-fathom Leopard, and Tracker’s handsome warrior lover, Mossi) are often fascinating. Tracker is described as both man and woman, treading a fine line between the two.
He is also, often, a lonesome figure: “I will admit,” he says, “at least to my darkest soul, that there was nothing worse to be than in the middle of many souls, even souls you might know, and still be lonely…”
However, like it or not, Tracker has company – a ramshackle crew of misfits who, while often depending on each other, do not altogether trust each other and do not always stick together as they should. Nevertheless, this is a group of travellers, who are on a quest. And the child is the quest.
A Fellowship of the Ring, perhaps? The author has been invited to give the annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at my alma mater, Oxford University, on February 26, 2019. The lecture is free and open to the public and the book will be published in the UK two days later. In an interview, James suggests that his novel was an African response to Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (which was virtually a Bible for me and my fellow hippies in the early 1970s). There are similarities: James’ novel is the first in a trilogy named Dark Star. Now, how does that title sound familiar? Well, I believe James is a great admirer of the late David Bowie’s work – Bowie himself was a weaver of dreams and a bit of a shapeshifter, himself.
As with the Tolkien classic, there are myriad characters – creatures, humans, and others in between – who come and go, sometimes bursting into the narrative, sometimes quietly introducing themselves, sometimes shadowy. They might be armies, or tribes, or villagers, or courtiers. A horrific flesh-eating monster has a similar speech pattern to Gollum (Sméagol, who also liked to eat things raw). To help with this panoply of characters, there is a useful list of “Those Who Appear in This Account.”
This is a group with a mission, moving through strange and unknown lands, on foot or on horseback or by boat. Occasionally they even travel on each other’s shoulders or back, but they are always moving, telling tales along the way. To help the reader navigate, there are also maps. These were not yet included in the copy I read. However, in Tolkien’s trilogy, the hand-drawn picture-maps are an intrinsic part of the work. There is even a song (a griot) – perhaps another nod to Tolkien. I wonder what the gentle Professor of Old and Middle English would have thought of the profanities, sex and violence. Mind you, Beowulf and the Norse sagas are not pretty tea parties.
There is one more parallel that struck me. For Tolkien’s Frodo and his fellow-travellers, the goal is to destroy something already in their possession – the Ring. In James’ story, does the eventual goal become destruction, also? Ah, but that might be a spoiler!
There are other influences. Some passages with a frenetic, this-is-all-a-crazy-dream feel reminded me of Ben Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road (Mr Okri is also a Booker Prize winner). There is a strong Game of Thrones atmosphere in some of the set pieces – for example, a grand banquet that descends into chaos. There is even a sideways glance at the horror genre. Someone says: “Is this not how all stories of fright go, that we come upon a house where no one lives?” A touch of the cabin in the woods, perhaps. There’s also more than a nod to the famous 20th-century storyteller, Bob Dylan (all his best songs are stories): “At the gate, seven riders were approaching, and the wind was a wolf” reminds me of that song of magic and mystery, “All Along the Watchtower” (see a growly version here).
Tracker’s companions are far more interesting than the quest itself, which is almost forgotten at times. Although Tracker’s nose (inhaling a range of odours) keeps him going, he sometimes cannot recall why he is looking for the child. Does any of this matter?
Amidst all of this chaos, there is a thread of love to hang onto – or perhaps the word is compassion. I mentioned the suffering, and none suffers more than children in this story. Tracker has a soft spot for the abandoned, unloved mingi children, who are shunned because of their physical disabilities. The Leopard and the Wolf repeat the phrase “Nobody loves no one” – a double negative, which suggests hope, or despair. The relationship between the two creatures is similarly an unresolved tangle of dark and light.
James did a great deal of research while putting this novel together. We take note of many African elements: references to female genital mutilation and superstitions about newborn babies; the albinos and the trade in their body parts; and organ harvesting, to name a few. Certain tribes in Ethiopia regard children (and adults) with physical imperfections (including abnormal teeth) as impure and cursed (mingi). A dance is described that reminds one of the Maasai “jumping dance,” straight legged and high. As far as the African diaspora is concerned, there is the “red slave who became an Empress” – Josephine, perhaps? A carnival or masquerade shuffles and stomps down a city street. As for “Jamaicanisms,” a “blackheart man” is mentioned, and so is Anansi/Anancy. The phrase “A ghost knows who to scare” reminds me of one of my favourite Jamaican proverbs. While once again the children are victimized and used: “Raise a little one to be a killer and killing is all he does.” Oh, woe for the child soldiers…
Where and when is this Africa? I found myself trying to “place” and anchor this fantasy world, but all I know is that it is probably ancient. It is certainly brilliant, luminous, earthy, fearful, foul-smelling (through Tracker’s nose), enchanted, mysterious, uncaring. A city with a huge library of ancient records – is that Timbuktu? A city with walls and narrow alleyways – is that Great Zimbabwe? The “sand sea” must be the Sahara Desert. And so on. What I enjoyed the most, however, were the luscious descriptions of cities and forests (including fascinating trees – something Tolkien would have enjoyed); rivers filled with glittering mermaids; moonlight and shadow; and a city in the sky, which is not all that it seems.
This is a story of love and revenge, truth and contradictions. Why are people walking on the ceiling? Well, this is fantasy. It is quite OK to believe in whatever you want, dear reader. Even upside-down as normal.
One thing becomes clear to me: It is humans who are the real monsters. “We still think monsters are the ones with claws and scales and skin,” says the Wolf. But it is evil – people – who are doing the “lying, cheating, beating, wounding, murdering.”
All the best fantasy novels have a healthy dose of realism. This is one of them.
Many, many thanks to David Thomas at Bookophilia in Kingston, Jamaica for giving me the opportunity to read this book. Thank you very much also to publishers Random House for providing the review copy.