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Where other novelists fail, Marlon James succeeds

Where other novelists fail, Marlon James succeeds

Plus, a crazy Mexican road trip and other literary notes

Plus, a crazy Mexican road trip and other literary notes

February/March 2019

Tracker has a great nose. He used to have a name, but he forgot it long ago. Don’t think you’ve stepped into a Jack Reacher novel. The long-awaited new work by Marlon James (above) – his first since winning the Man Booker prize in 2015 with “A Brief History of Seven Killings” – is on an epic, imaginative scale.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first volume of a grand fantasy trilogy set in west Africa. Its hero, Tracker, is trying to find a child who vanished before the novel opens. Who the child is and why he’s missing, no one will say. Tracker prefers to work alone but now he joins forces with a crew of mercenaries that includes a man who can change at will into a leopard and a woman possessed by a lightning bird that makes her appear blue.

Drawing on legend, history and mythology, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” takes Afrofuturism to a new level. James’s inventiveness is wild and crisp. But the biggest surprise is how brilliantly he writes about the two things that fell most other novelists: violence and sex. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

Wheels of fortune
The heroine of Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive, met her husband while she was recording a soundscape of New York City. The book opens four years after that encounter, when the couple is on a road trip from New York to Arizona with two children – her daughter, his son – along with their backpacks, a blue cooler with water bottles and snacks, and equipment to record a new story.

As they drive, Luiselli unspools how they became a family and began calling themselves “we”. At the same time, she traces another journey: a Mexican friend in New York is waiting to hear whether her two small children will be given asylum in America. Their grandmother had packed them off, with a Bible, a toy each and their mother’s telephone number sewn into the collars of their dresses, in the company of a smuggler who left them in the desert. They were discovered by American border patrollers and placed in a detention centre for unaccompanied minors. As the two journeys intersect, the novel becomes suffused with a deep sense of fear and anxiety. Donald Trump’s trumpeting about the border “crisis” may make this the year’s most timely novel. ~ FR

Heart of darkness
Leila Slimani’s “Lullaby” was the best selling book in France in 2016 before becoming an international success. Adèle came out in France before “Lullaby”, but this is its first outing in English, in a sharp and nuanced translation from Sam Taylor. It is a short, disturbing novel, written in the present tense and set in a bleak and amoral Paris.

Like Emma Bovary, Adèle is married to a doctor. She also echoes the nihilism of Flaubert’s heroine. Adèle is a successful journalist, but thoroughly bored by her rather proper, borderline-prudish husband Richard. She feels excluded – almost redundant – because of her husband’s fierce love for their child. She is also obsessed by transgressive sex – with her boss, her best friend’s boyfriend, and a pair of male prostitutes. She often asks her partners to brutalise her: she is addicted to breaking the rules.

Slimani’s spare, compulsive prose is once again very much on display here. But the author’s real skill lies in making Adèle’s behaviour taboo and her ennui understandable. ~ ALEX PEAKE-TOMKINSON

What a Charlie
Charlie, a 60-something Irishman, has some grievances. His memory isn’t what it once was, which isn’t too surprising given that he and the wife have “decided not to bother with the fish and the crosswords”. He’s had to abandon his buttoned jeans – too fiddly – and move on to the zipped kind, which are forever flying low. Brexit is a bore, his daughter is trying to make him into an Internet star and he can’t stop thinking about Eileen, a girl he once inexpertly snogged aged 16. His outlook, his nearest and dearest say, is often not only “bleak” but “windswept and desolate”.

Yet Charlie Savage, Roddy Doyle’s collected newspaper columns, is not just another iteration of the “Grumpy Old Men” cliché. This portrait of an ordinary man (and one clearly past his best) is by turns hilarious and heartfelt. The protagonist is passionate about Manchester United – “the football will cling to the insides of our heads long after everything else has slid out” –and his pints of Guinness with his friend. It is in expressing his love for his family that Doyle’s prose is most moving. “I know I have a heart,” Charlie says, “because I can feel it pumping, keeping me alive for them.” ~ RACHEL LLOYD