Published by Riverhead Books / Penguin, 2019, 640 pages.
“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”
This is how the book starts. It feels like a spoiler, because the crux of the story is that a man, known only as Tracker, has been paid to look for a boy. He isn’t sure who the boy really is—he gets a different story every time he tries to find out—and there are other people looking for him too. And in spite of the fact that I knew the boy was dead at the start, I was still engaged enough to stay with the book.
Well, almost. The first section rambles and is all over the place. It sets the scene, introducing Tracker’s back story and his reasons for leaving home, and the time he spends with the woman Sangoma and the children she has taken in, each deformed or unusual in some way and rejected by their families: the Giraffe Boy with his long legs, the boy with no legs at all who rolls instead of walking and the Smoke Girl. This is also where he meets the Leopard, a shape shifter who moves between being a man and a leopard. This is a pivotal period in his life: Leopard and he form a bond, and Sangoma casts spells on him that protect him throughout his journey.
The book really gets started with the second section, when Tracker is hired to look for the boy as part of a group. Tracker is a little annoyed at this: he is the best at his job, able to pick up the scent of someone from miles away. But there is something strange about the boy. Many seek him, both humans and other creatures, and some of them are very nasty. It is not always clear who is out to harm him and who to save him. As Tracker says, ““Everywhere I go to find this boy, to save this boy, I run into something worse than what we are saving him from … but we still think monsters are the ones with claws, and scales and skin.”
Marlon James drew on African myths for this book—in fact, he says it’s an African Game of Thrones. There is certainly plenty of violence in it. I’ve read James’s A Book of Night Women about slavery in Jamaica, and I know that he doesn’t stint on violence. But whereas in that book, the violence was very much in context and therefore made sense, here it feels like a splatter-fest. Creatures are killed, heads roll (literally), and scene after scene is littered with body parts.
However, the beings he meets are intriguing: creatures that hunt him but can only walk on ceilings so the only way to stay safe is to sleep in the open, flesh eaters, hyenas that change into humans (or the other way around), a woman with lightning in her veins, a giant, and a sorceress who morphs into a puddle or seeps through walls.
It held my attention until the last 100 pages or so, where I lost interest. The core story was good, in spite of the unnecessary blood-letting, and he should have stopped with the finding of the boy. I like James’s writing and was intrigued by the idea that he drew on African myths. But some of the writing is meant only to shock and has no other purpose, and the book is a couple of hundred pages and a few fight scenes too long. Which is a pity, because it could have been so much better.
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