Why I Couldn’t Finish Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Why I Couldn’t Finish Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The disappointment of not finishing a book

Image for postPhoto by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Is there anything quite like the disappointment of being let down by a book you expected ? you wanted ? to love?

I wanted to read Marlon James? Black Leopard, Red Wolf ever since I stumbled across an interview where he discussed its genesis and influences. A hallucinatory fantasy epic steeped in African mythology? Yes please, count me in. Excitable early reviews and breathless endorsements from the likes of Neil Gaiman piqued my interest even further.

So imagine how deflating it was to crack it open, read a few chapters, and discover that I didn?t like it. That, in fact, I might even hate it ? and certainly would not be finishing it.

In my younger days, I was dead set against abandoning a partially-read book. What if it took a while to ?click?, the way certain albums take a few listens before embedding themselves in your skull? Of course, that was before I spent a miserable month wading through the mercilessly dull ?classic? Walden, at which point I vowed I would never allow myself to get stuck reading a hated book again. After all, reading is a hobby to be enjoyed.

And so Black Leopard, Red Wolf is back on the shelf.

But why didn?t I like it? And if a book doesn?t live up to what I imagined it would be, is that anyone?s fault but mine?

Black Leopard, Red Wolf starts dramatically, intriguingly, with the kind of opening lines writers spend hours crafting.

?The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.?

But there is so much that we, the readers, need to know. And, at the point I abandoned ship, I was no closer to knowing who ?the child? was and why their death mattered.

The story is told from the point of view of Tracker, a kind of drifter who earns his money by tracking ? that is, finding people who have been lost. Even, at one point, traveling to the land of the dead to bring back a dead King.

Sounds intriguing, right? It should be, but the story meanders, more a loose connection of vignettes or short stories than a novel. I like a good short story collection as much as the next reader, but please, don?t write one and then try and tell me it?s a novel.

There were interesting ideas and images strewn throughout what I read, but I often found myself stuck at a surface level ? nothing was really sinking in and I didn?t always know what was going on. Worse, I had no idea if any of it would actually prove relevant to the main plot ? assuming that the author ever decides on one. Obviously, I didn?t get that far.

The introduction of the eponymous Black Leopard threatens interest ? an aggressive shapeshifter should be interesting, but our introduction to him is mainly by way of a lengthy description of what he smells like ? an old man?s ass, if you were wondering. I wasn?t, but Marlon James clearly wants all of us to know.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf seems obsessed with smells: with asses, particularly ? with cocks and genitalia in general. I?m no prude, but describing the penis of nearly every character with one makes it seem like James was short of his word count and had to pad it out of desperation.

Padded and wordy is what it is. If you can make it to three chapters and not even touch on your novel?s actual plot, then maybe you need a better editor. And that?s before we get to the purple prose that goes in circles and never quite gets to the heart of what?s happening or why any of it matters.

It?s also violent, with a particular focus on sexual violence, absolutely all of which is unnecessary. The author himself declared the novel (and the trilogy it starts) ?an African Game of Thrones? (a claim he has since argued was a joke) but he seems to only be interested in the violent aspects of those novels, rather than the political intrigue and complex characters.

But maybe it?s my fault. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. Marlon James isn?t in my head, and isn?t required to write a novel to my exact specifications. Especially since I?m white, and maybe ? for once ? a book wasn?t written with me in mind. There are bound to be people out there who love Black Leopard, Red Wolf, for the weird, confusing, aggressively sexual novel it is. But I?m not one of them.

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