Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James - review by Helon Habila

Helon Habila

African Epic

Black Leopard, Red Wolf


Hamish Hamilton 620pp £20 order from our bookshop

How do you follow a Booker Prize win? When, after claiming the award in 2015 with the wonderful A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Jamaican author Marlon James declared that he was going to write a sort of African Lord of the Rings trilogy, I am sure I wasn’t the only one who greeted that announcement with scepticism. Four years later, the first book in the Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is out and I must say it is a reading experience like no other I’ve had in a long time. It is at once a pan-African fable, a magic realist thriller and historical fiction. Figures from African folk tales, like the Sasabonsam, the Ipundulu, the Sangoma and Anansi, populate the story. When the narrator is hired by a queen to bring back her consort from the land of the dead, it calls to mind a motif from Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. But far from being merely a patchwork quilt of borrowed elements from African oral narratives, including copious Hausa, Swahili, Yoruba and Zulu proverbs, this book stands out as a postmodern collage carefully rooted in the griot tradition.

The story is told by the main character, who introduces himself thus: ‘My name is Tracker. Once I had a name, but have long forgotten it.’ The book opens with him in detention and his story takes the form of an oral deposition given to an ‘Inquisitor’, a sort of

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