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What a wholly-immersive wild adventure this novel is! Going into it I knew Marlon James has a talent for writing intricate sweeping tales from having read his previous novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. That book greatly enhanced his international prominence having won the Booker Prize in 2015. That same year I was one of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize and we also selected his novel as a winner - not just for the magnificence of his storytelling but the meaningful inclusion of gay characters and gay sex in this Jamaican story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and drug trafficking.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is very different from that previous book yet still retains James’ unique style, sensibility and alluring mischievousness. Touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones’, it describes a fantastical medieval adventure involving warring kingdoms, witches, giants, shape-shifters and a quest for a missing child. But it’s all firmly rooted in African mythology, language and history. There have been significant examples recently of storytelling whose narratives aren’t wholly based in an Anglo-Saxon past but draw instead upon traditions in African culture. From Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” to Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater” to the phenomenally successful film Black Panther, these tales insist upon the presence of African lore and pay respect to its cultural history whose influence has largely been absent from Western narratives. Marlon James does the same while creating a riveting journey that has all the marks of a fantasy novel but also explores sophisticated ideas about the meaning of storytelling and explicitly adult themes about ambition, relationships, sex and violence.

Recognizing this novel is a significant shift from his more realistic mode of writing, James remarked in an early interview about this novel that “I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek!” Part of what I loved about reading this book is that it made me feel like a boy again and recall a time when I frequently got lost in magical adventure novels where the world was entirely unpredictable and quickly transformed in spellbinding ways. Books in this mode are such feats of the imagination that they require a character list and detailed maps to help the reader’s journey through this complicated new world. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” includes such aides and this adds to the nostalgic pleasure of embarking on what you know will be a knotty and richly-detailed odyssey.

The story’s hero Tracker becomes estranged from his family and tribe finding a more meaningful connection with a band of rejected deformed children called The Mingi and the charismatic Leopard (who alternately takes the form of a beast or man.) After being endowed with an extremely powerful sense of smell and magical protection from an anti-witch, Tracker (alongside a band of mercenaries and powerful beings) are recruited by a slave trader for a special mission to find a boy who mysteriously disappeared. The significance of this boy and his circumstances remain uncertain even as more details about him are uncovered during a quest which takes many years. Throughout his journeys Tracker encounters enchanted forests, mighty men engaged in gladiatorial fights, a neglected library master, evil shadow beings who walk on ceilings, a possessed village, flesh-eating monsters, doors that act as portals to other parts of the continent, tribes of witches who trade in children’s body parts and fantastical kingdoms. It’s a head-spinning adventure and one which expertly balances mysterious encounters with high intrigue.

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Embedded within this rich tale is a complicated same-sex romance centring around the close connection between Tracker and Leopard. Both are prone to jealousy when Tracker takes up with a chief officer and Leopard has an affair with his bowman. James has spoken before about how he emigrated from his native Jamaica partly because of the homophobic violence there. Leopard remarks at one point how “There are lands where men who love men get their cocks cut off, and are left to bleed to death.” It feels bold and significant that the author continuously includes highly-detailed gay love stories as prominent aspects of his narratives as a way of being true to his experience and insisting these stories have a visible place in broader storytelling. So not only does James orientate readers into largely untapped folklore traditions but he also highlights how same-sex relationships are an equally valid part of African history and mythology.

James also features the ways in which misogyny and rape are inevitable parts of warfare. Battles involve trading in bodies and forced servitude. He shows how sex isn’t always about sexuality but can be a tool in ploys for power and economic dominance. He notes how “the gods gave us nipples and holes and it’s not the cock or the koo, but the gold in your purse that matters.” As a hero, Tracker fights with the sensibility of a vigilante. But the novel fascinatingly probes his own shortcomings as a man questioning whether he has a latent hatred of women and if his violent acts are motivated more by revenge than achieving a sense of larger justice. This complexity of character and display of self-scrutiny makes him much more conflicted than your average fantasy story hero.

While witnessing Tracker’s complex development and following his epic tales, we’re aware that this entire novel is a testimony he’s delivering to an inquisitor in a trial about the fate of the lost boy. This is only the first novel in a proposed trilogy James is writing so this framework is part of a larger story being told and provokes larger metaphysical questions about the meaning of truth. Tracker is aware that we should “never take the story of any god or spirit or magical being to be all true. If the gods created everything, was truth not just another creation?” He doesn’t accept the authority of the divine or any leader who claims to have the backing of divine forces. In fact, Tracker is determinedly sacrilegious as one of his favourite quips is “Fuck the gods!” He’s cognizant that folklore is a decidedly mortal compulsion. If the process of relating history involves infusing it with a purpose and plan then there can’t be any one honest account of the past – including his own. He further asks “What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”

Since this book is only the first story of a much larger tale, I’m already eager to see how further instalments will enhance a broader understanding of this new complex world filled with competing dynasties that James has created. One of the most fascinating characters in this novel is Sogolon who is also called the Moon Witch and has her own complicated motivations for finding the missing boy. James has already established that the next novel will be told from her perspective so it’ll be fascinating to see how her account will offer a radically different point of view on the events covered in the first book. The author has proven how adept he is at depicting very different but equally convincing voices with the multiplicity of first person accounts in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. So, while the scale of this planned “Dark Star Trilogy” is truly epic, I have faith he’ll be able to deliver a well-rounded and fully-realised vision of enormous stature. In this first instalment it’s stated how “The world is strange and people keep making it stranger.” I feel like the more we see of this world the weirder it will get and the truer it will seem.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarlon James

Reading and judging the many submissions for The Green Carnation Prize was one of the toughest things I’ve done this year, but it’s also been one of the most fulfilling. Championing new writing is important to me and I’m grateful for this platform that raises awareness of some of the best LGBT authors working today. Meeting with the judges was like participating in the most rigorous and enjoyable book club ever. We discussed the books from many angles. Since this is a prize open to books in every genre it felt particularly difficult to compare them against each other. Also, it sounds like a cliché, but the short list was particularly strong. When we went into our final meeting to select a winner I truly felt any of these six accomplished books could win.

This year there was an added challenge to the selection process. We began reading submission in July, but during the course of the judging process Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won the Booker Prize – one of the most high profile book prizes in the UK. It’d be impossible to ignore the weight of this phenomenon where James’ long, complicated novel rose from relative obscurity to one of the most talked about books of the year. It also filled the shop front windows of many bookstores. Is it really right to award another book prize to a novel that’s become so high profile? Wouldn’t it be better to raise awareness for a foreign author like Erwin Mortier, an incredibly impressive debut author like Gavin McCrea, an established author that has stayed true to his subject matter like Patrick Gale or an accomplished literary trickster like Patricia Duncker (all of whom deserve to be more widely read)? But the prize isn’t about the author or the social landscape of publishing, it’s about the book.

“Sophie & The Sibyl” and “Mrs Engels” did stand out as particularly skilful accomplishments. Duncker’s novel is an engrossing tale told with humour, intelligence and pays tribute to one of the greatest writers in English literature. McCrea’s literary drag act of a book gives voice to a woman who was a footnote in the history books and creates a story which can be read in relation to many of the most pressing issues today – everything from the recent global recession to gay marriage.

But, when the judges sat down to talk long and hard over all the shortlist, the book that stood out as a shining masterpiece was “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” This is a challenging novel. No doubt. And I’m sure many people who bought a copy after it won the Booker didn’t finish reading it. I hope that with this award people decide to go back and read it again – if for no other reason than to enjoy two of the most original gay characters to appear in a novel for years.

Holding the crystal shard of a prize

Holding the crystal shard of a prize

Something many people probably haven’t considered about this novel is what a brave challenge it is to include such characters and explicit gay sex scenes. This novel centres around Bob Marley, one of the most celebrated figures in Jamaican history. While it goes past this extraordinary event surrounding the icon singer also considering many aspects of the drug trade, political & gang warfare and relations between the US & Jamaica, the fact it includes compelling openly gay characters will make it difficult for many people in Jamaica to accept. James has talked about this in a recent interview with Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian where he stated: “In this book, there’s a gay sex scene. And I thought the scene was important, because experiencing sex from a character was the only way he could accept any level of his queerness, which is why it is a blow-by-blow sex scene. The Jamaicans weren’t happy.”

Aside from any politics or book prizes, this novel is simply a stunning accomplishment that everyone should read.

Some books leave you reeling in astonishment and “A Brief History of Seven Killings” certainly does that. I feel like I've been startled awake and can still hear the multiplicity of voices contained in this novel. Marlon James creates several distinct narrators to tell the story surrounding an assault upon Bob Marley’s house on December 3, 1976 by unknown gunmen who attacked Marley, his wife, manager and band mates which left them seriously injured. This mysterious incident occurred two days before he was due to sing in a concert which was meant to inspire peace between two warring Jamaican political groups. Nevertheless, Marley performed at the concert as scheduled. This novel is told from the point of view of dons (or territorial/gang leaders), CIA agents, a journalist, gang members, a woman trying to escape Jamaica, a hit man and a deceased politician. It spans a decade and a half from 1976 to 1991. It is specifically about the Singer and Jamaican politics, but it’s also a fantastic exploration of identity (national, racial, gender, sexual, spiritual). This is a book that challenges your assumptions about who you think you are and how you see other people.

Although Marley is central to the story we never get his voice. As such, the characters talk about him and (in some cases) directly to him, but we don’t hear his point of view. This is important because, as the novel progresses, it becomes about much more than the incident and extends its meaning into the larger culture. The author could very well be revealing his mission for this novel when a character states at one point: “there’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture than me asking him why he smokes ganja.” In this way, Marley is mythologized in a way similar to what Gabriel García Márquez does in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where the murdered man central to the story becomes so filled with all the characters’ opinions about him that he ceases to be a physical man and becomes more of a symbol. At the same time, I felt incredibly anxious for and sympathetic towards Marley’s plight as he was caught in an overwhelming web of scheming and ideological battles. He was extremely vulnerable as one man observes: “Once you climb to the peak of the mountain, the whole world can take a shot.”

As well as offering a wide range of perspectives on Marley, the novel also gives a fascinatingly complex understanding of race as viewed from the perspectives of multiple characters. There is the white journalist Alex Pierce who scoffs at white Americans who affect black sensibilities, but who can’t fully integrate into the society. Or the CIA man who observes that “Racism here is sour and sticky, but it goes down so smooth that you’re tempted to be racist with a Jamaican just to see if they would even get it.” Throughout the book there is an awareness of skin colour being a factor in social class depending on lightness or darkness. An enforcer and don, Josey Wales, states that “In Jamaica you have to make sure that you breed properly. Nice little light browning who not too dry up, so that your child will get good milk and have good hair.” These points of view bring to mind for me Chimamanda Adichie’s observation that race isn’t a genetic issue, but a social issue. There are conflicted levels of racism inherent to everyone’s point of view which are demonstrated by the way they interact with and think about others.

For a novel so dominated by a multiplicity of male perspectives, the female narrator Nina Burgess gives a refreshingly different take on women in this novel. She’s someone who I felt a tremendous level of sympathy with both for her yearnings and her need to escape her culture to create a new identity. Burgess exposes the sexism women must face in Jamaican society – how the threat of sexual violence is something which can go unreported and be overlooked by officials even if it is (as they may very well be the perpetrators.) It shows how fear of it can be a kind of torture: “I can’t imagine anything worse than waiting for a rape.” It’s shown how rape is used as another instrument of war and the quest for domination. Importantly, the novel also shows how stereotypes or expectations about the way women might be treated in Jamaica don’t always play out in the ways you’d expect in specific circumstances. Another female character who defies stereotypes is Griselda Blanco, a drug lord who is one of the toughest and most fearsome characters in the entire book.

At the same time, James gives a sympathetic understanding towards his male characters – even when they are ruthless killers. Many feel trapped by circumstance and cornered into taking certain actions based on what opportunities are available to them. Some experience a crisis of consciousness and develop or recess back into old habits of being. The character of Josey Wales meaningfully realizes that “When you come into the real truth about yourself, you realize that the only person equipped to handle it is you.” There aren’t avenues of support to encourage gang members out of the life they live. The horrific fact about the violence that many of the men engage with is that it is self-perpetuating and has no end: “The problem with proving something is that instead of leaving you alone people never stop giving new things to prove, harden things.” So the violence must escalate as the men feel they must maintain and protect their place within their social group.

Jamaica has a notoriously bad reputation for the way it treats its queer community. That rampant homophobia is reflected in this book where one of the most common insults casually doled out is “batty man.” This isn’t surprising and fully justified given that many of the voices are by macho tough men. What is surprising is that two of the voices (that of a complicated gang enforcer named Weeper and a dangerous hit man named John-John K) are men who actively have sex with other men. There is a level of acceptance for their actions by some gang members who acknowledge their different sexuality but overlook this fact because they don’t consider them “that” type of gay man. Equally there is a complex understanding of their own sexualities within each man’s narrative. They challenge stereotypes: “Don’t think the man getting fucked must be the bitch.” Bottoms can also be bad ass.

Watch Marlon James discuss his inspiration for writing this novel

In many ways, these two characters also hide their true natures as a means of surviving in their stridently heterosexual social groups. There is a level of self-consciousness where the men must “perform” a role and this reveals the fallible nature of our social identities. There is talk of male prostitutes being used and then killed to hide the shame of what happened. Only in New York City can Weeper establish a somewhat steady sexual relationship with another man on his own terms. Weeper and John-John K also have a fascinating dialogue about sexuality when they finally meet in a climactic scene which offers very different points of view rather than a singular outcast gay man’s voice. This is such a refreshing and challenging thing for a novel to do. It’s fascinating to consider how the author might also still be facing his own struggle with sexuality given that in the last sentence of the acknowledgements he warns his mother away from reading the fourth part of this novel which contains some very graphic gay sexual content.

It’s astounding to me a novel can encompass so many different voices and do so in a way that is entirely convincing, but also beautifully written. Some of the most lyrical writing is that of the deceased politician Sir Arthur Jennings who oversees the spanning interstices of time between sections. One of the most striking lines which I keep musing upon comes from the journalist looking upon the ghetto thinking “Beauty has infinite range but so does wretchedness…”  However, some of the most forceful, terrifying and hypnotically-written passages that flood your mind like a river are by the young gang members rapt in the heat of drug-fuelled violence. This novel builds voices in layers giving a complex understanding of our culture in a way that only a novel can. Interestingly, it uses multiple narrators to create a polyphonic perspective of a place and time surrounding a specific incident that's very similar to Ryan Gattis’ “All Involved”. I was also struck how one plot-line of the book sees a caregiver get attached to an older man who loses his short-term memories every day which is a story that is superficially similar to Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" which I read earlier this year. Of course, James' novel is very different from these books in content, but I think it's a positive thing when great books remind you of other great books.

It is commendable Marlon James engages with this period of Jamaican history and culture in such a complex and intelligent way. Perhaps he felt the need to answer his own challenge set by his character Tristan Phillips who suggests: “Maybe somebody should put all of this craziness together, because no Jamaican going do it. No Jamaican can do it, brother, either we too close or somebody going stop we.” This is a view of Jamaica that only this author could give, yet its meanings extend so far beyond the boundaries of that country and the individual voices it contains. It is a long read, but it becomes utterly mesmerizing. As an enticement to stick with it, you should know that the significance of this novel’s title and the killings it references isn’t revealed until near the end. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a novel I feel like I could go on and on about. I’ve only just touched on some of the fascinating themes and ideas this book brings up. It’s better if I just write you should definitely read it and end here.