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“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is a dream crafted into a novel

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

Photo by Malcolm Streitfeld

Disclaimer: If you read this review and want to check out this book, keep in mind it is dark, raw and deals with a lot of heavy themes. Go into it only if you’re prepared to delve into some difficult subject matter.

Every story is a solitary truth wrapped in lies. These lies are necessary for you to strip away the numerous layers of a tale, taking away all of its embellishments, fabrications and imposed roles of heroes and villains. All that’s left is something not worth telling. In a way, mankind was birthed from a single inaccurate seed, one that blossomed into a glorious tree of folklore that carried our species out of Africa and across the waves to other lands. We spread through the world, propelled by a glorious dream thought to be reality. By writing “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Jamaican author Marlon James has taken this dream and crafted it into a novel.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” has won the 2019 Ray Bradbury Prize for Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction and the 2020 Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. The Washington Post called it one of the top ten books of 2019.

The book begins with a prisoner named Tracker explaining to a mysterious Inquisitor how he ended up in a cell. By doing this, Marlon James tricks the reader with a false start, as soon afterward Tracker starts recounting all his adventures for the Inquisitor’s eager ears. It is here that the novel truly begins. Tracker weaves a tapestry of small, interconnected narratives revolving around the hunt for a missing child. Each one reveals more and more about this man who now finds himself in chains. Or do they?

Recall what I said at the beginning of this review. Tracker, like any good oral storyteller, may also be quite the fibber. As the reader proceeds through the novel, it will become their task to tease out the grains of truth from this fantastic tale. In the end, they may conclude that everything in the story happened exactly as Tracker had told it. Or they may come to see the narrative as one big lie. It ultimately falls to the reader to decide how much Tracker has exaggerated and embellished certain events.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” speaks to me more than any other book because it perfectly captures the magic that made me want to become a writer in the first place. Back during my days as a young sprout, Len Cabral visited my elementary school, International Charter School in Pawtucket. Everyone, me included, gathered in the cafeteria and listened eagerly as Cabral enthusiastically told us legends that had such characters as Aboyoyo and Anansi the Spider. He even gestured with his body and had us imitate him so we could play along. Listening to Cabral, I was captivated by this wonderful magic that sparked fantastical images inside my head. I was entranced by these tales he crafted out of nothing.

Clapping my hands to Cabral, I realized I wanted to tell stories just like he did. He’s been one of my idols ever since. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” earned its place as my favorite novel by making me experience that same magic. It is truly an experience like no other, washing over you like the ancient rivers of Africa.


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