Every bibliophile has a book on their shelf that calls to them, but has never gripped them as much as it promised to. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is one of mine. Everything Pynchon writes is brilliant, but I’ve never gotten past page 120. Another example is that I’ve a few friends who intermittently pick up, but never make real progress with, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. These books aren’t bad, they don’t gel with the reader in that way it looked like they would at the point of purchase.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a prime candidate for this type of shelf-sitter. The anticipation was high (as of the New Year, 2019’s most anticipated novel), the book itself is one of the most beautiful physical objects I’ve ever held, and the fantastical quest storyline promised an immersive reading experience. I was fired up for this book. Then I read it and it was… fine, I suppose.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is good. This isn’t an issue of quality. The prose is fantastic:
Mist split the light into blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and a colour I did not know was purple. One hundred or 101 paces down, the trees all bent in one direction, almost braiding together. Trunks growing north and south, east-west, shot up, reached down, twisting into and out of each other, then down on the ground again, like a wild cage to hold something in or keep something out. Kava jumped on one of the trunks, bent so low that it was almost flat with the ground. The branch was as wide as a path, and the dew on the moss made it slippery. We walked all the way on one trunk and jumped down to another bending below it, moving up again, and jumping from trunk to trunk, going up high, then down low, then around so many times that only on the third time did I notice we were upside down but did not fall.Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, p46
Look at the sentence variety here, the hints of off-stage plot (“a colour I did not know was purple”), the blurring of the line between what’s possible and what’s not (“we were upside down but did not fall”). The description of the forest is vivid and powerful. Unfortunately, this dazzling writing makes it almost impossible to figure out what’s going on.
The same thing happens when I try to read Gravity’s Rainbow, which I mentioned earlier. Every sentence is a joy to read, but 600+ pages of sentences like that becomes exhausting, and I soon lose the plot. Literally.
I didn’t spend the duration of Black Leopard, Red Wolf in a state of befuddlement. The plot is busy and action-packed. There are a lot of bodily fluids. Treachery and double-crossing abound. But these points of plot clarity are rare, in between the persistent obfuscation of the prose style.
The result was that after all of excitement I felt to read this novel, it left me cold. This could be my fault. I’d gone into it expecting escapism, adventure and off-the-wall fantasy. What I got was a slog through a book that was much more impressive than entertaining. A reader going into this with different expectations or a greater empathy for James’ style of writing would love it, so don’t let me put you off. The book just wasn’t what I wanted.
Nothing wrong with this novel, and there were moments where I got into it. The dominant feeling throughout, and on completion, is that it did nothing for me.