Reading Love Poems to My Dog: A Review of Micheline Maylor's Little Wildheart

A poetry collection isn’t necessarily meant to be read cover-to-cover in a single sitting, but curled in bed with my dog is exactly how I ended up reading Little Wildheart. In 2016, I heard Maylor read “How to be in a garden” at her Calgary poet laureate inauguration, and the sensual blend of animal and human, sincerity and sarcasm became lodged in my brain. Three years later, in a hunt for that single poem, I bought Little Wildheart. It felt natural to have my own animal companion beside me, as the poems delve into a human/animal dreamscape that is both memoir and imaged space.

Little Wildheart opens with the ominously titled “We are entirely flammable,” which starts: “Come, walk an open road. Stand./ Meld a hawk’s shadow/ with your own” (1). With this short poem, Maylor extends an invitation to her readers to quite literally come with her through this collection. The second and third poems introduce the reader to Maylor, who blends herself together with each poem’s speaker; Maylor writes of her own DNA and mixed heritage: “Double-stranded ascension to past and sky./ This is to say, my life is a hallway between those strands ” (“Convergence” 3).

Maylor’s careful awareness of the land on which she writes and her own place in it is touched upon several times in the collection, most notably in “Detroit Zoo bathroom, 1977” where she gives details of her “grandmother./ Bronzed Queen of Huron” and herself “bleached to blend in prairie snow” (16). Maylor continues to blur her identity beyond the human and into the natural world. In “Free” she writes, “The dogs in my brain run amok,” and more animals roam the poet’s body in “For there are still such mysteries, and such advice”: “The rabbits in my blood have turned to circus freaks […] Their fur, my DNA” (66, 28). With her images, Maylor draws the reader into her very body, forming herself into not only a space where nature plays, but into an unapologetically sexual space.

Having been introduced to this collection with “How to be in a garden,” which reads “You can’t be here fast enough, inside me. It’s been a long time/ since I’ve felt that dam burst,” I ought to have expected more of the erotic from Maylor, but each time her poems turned to the sexual, I was surprised by their outspokenness (38). Maylor rarely hides behind allusion or insinuation. In “Reasons for learning cursive” she writes, “Hand on quim, roll and ripple up, I/ scribble where your fingers trace again,” and in “Mercurial,” “under the pressure of your body on mine,/ that indelible surrender/ your crowning penis” (45, 54). Though perhaps too frank for some, I do not believe that Maylor writes gratuitously. Poems like “Mercurial” do the empowering work of reclaiming sexuality and pleasure within a female body as well as turning a sexed gaze upon the male body—a gaze so often turned upon women in order to silence and objectify. Meanwhile, works like “Polarity,” “Before the dark,” and “Talisman pool” depict motherhood (13, 14, 64). By including both topics, so often seen as separate—the sexless mother and the childless lover—Maylor reminds her readers of the connection between sex and childbirth and how the mother’s identity is one of plurality.

While “For there are such mysteries and such advice,” “How to be in a garden,” and “I always wanted a tattoo” are glosa poems, Maylor writes predominately in free verse, finding slippage between poetry and prose (28-29, 38-39, 46-47). In this slippage, Maylor constructs images through surprise and juxtaposition, often employing her own brand of snarky humour. “Fleece” exemplifies all of these elements: “All night, Salman Rushdie chastised me in my dreams […] His nametag says Dr. Authenticity […] I would agree even the shore seems god-lit. This morning/ seems like a reason as good as any to make off like a loon” (40). With the careful enjambment between “This morning” and “seems like a reason,” Maylor builds a deceptively simple double reading between her line breaks and her sentences, leading the reader to a larger world than the comic dreamscape they began in.

Little Wildheart is a collection that covers the pluralities of Maylor’s life as a poet, feminist, mother, teacher, and lover. As I curled in bed reading this collection aloud to my dog, I found myself unwilling to leave Maylor’s world in which human and animal blend seamlessly together with tender wildness.

Review by Kathryn Shalley, a writer, editor, and obsessive dog mom from Calgary, Alberta.

Taking up the Work of Reconciliation: A Review of Trevor Herriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement

In Towards a Prairie Atonement, award-winning Saskatchewan naturalist and birder Trevor Herriot honours the prairie itself, and Indigenous and Métis people as the land’s original inhabitants. A 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award winner, the text focuses on reconciliation regarding the brutal 1939 final displacement of Métis farmers from the Ste. Madeleine area of eastern Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border, where the Métis had practiced a form of sustainable prairie land management for fifty years. Herriot laments “[a]nother loss indivisible from the first beyond the deprivation that comes with expulsion. That is the greater loss of not recognizing the land governance system for the common good to protect ‘ecological integrity’” (95).

Herriot is a settler-descended activist and writer of six books addressing the Great Plains habitat, its species, and its history. Underlying the book is Herriot’s lyrical appreciation for the interrelated life of the Plains ecosystem across species and time. Herriot interweaves site visits accompanied by respected Métis cultural and Michif language preservationist Norman Fleury, with astute historical and contemporary politico-economic commentary, and archival research of the region’s fatal clashes following the Pemmican Wars between the Indigenous Peoples, including the Red River Métis, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Northwest Company traders.

Herriot’s writing is noteworthy for the accurate summations of two centuries. For instance, he refers to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sale of Rupert’s Land around 1869 to the Dominion of Canada for £300,000 as a “backroom deal that would set off a cascade of policy and exploitation that would exterminate the buffalo, force treaties and starve Indigenous People into submission on reserves” (66).

These encapsulations set the stage for readers to appreciate the injustice of the 1873 Homestead Act that cut up the prairie into 160-acre sections only European settler men could claim despite assurances to Métis that their lands and hay privilege would be preserved. Herriot takes pains to portray the Métis land management system as one that respected Indigenous rights, private property rights, and commonwealth rights, but a federal law enacted in 1938 caused the Red River Métis’ descendants to be violently driven off the land—not only costing them their way of life, but costing the prairie and all future generations a sustainable model of land management that balanced social, economic, and ecological needs.

Herriot is deft at drawing insightful parallels between the past and the present’s political, economic, and socio-cultural dynamics. For instance, he notes that the strategies for creating a successful colony in the late 19th century are the same central ideas at play in the political present—the need to “fuel economic growth [in large part, through ensuring cheap food for workers], improve value for investors, [and] manage indigenous people” (36). Similarly, he observes, “All the elements that plague our decisions about these lands today were present then: powerful corporate interests, misguided public policy, groups of disenfranchised people with long tenure on the land” (32).

Sometimes Herriot’s lyricism is pure: “with a nest to crouch beside, all theories and apprehensions fade as the genius of the place … in contrapuntal melodies … carr[ies] notes from the continent’s boreal crown to the grassland at its heart” (12). Other times, it’s edged with an understandable Anthropocenic cynicism—“scattered archipelagos of native prairie islands surrounded by a sea of cash crops” (5). The former grasslands of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta are now recognized as the largest, most altered landscape on Earth, a fragile ecosystem, home, at the time of publication, to thirty-one species at risk.

Towards a Prairie Atonement’s release was and is timely in several ways. It resonated deeply following the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations for reconciliation, which called for restitution of oppression committed in the name of colonialism against Indigenous People and their descendants. One of the book’s major contributions to truth is its exposé of the dominant history—of Canadian Government agents’ falsified accounts, deliberate propaganda, and ongoing oppression of the descendants of the Red River Métis. An index would have made this valuable information more easily accessible.

Herriot’s descriptions of the Métis land management system may also have broken new ground for general readers and nature readers alike. Going forward, he addresses and holds out an activist’s hope for restoring the previously reserved federal community pastures whose protections were removed under the Harper government. As of the book’s writing, though the pastures’ futures were controversial, they were still in Crown care and not sold to private interests. Herriot’s insights on grassland reclamation also resonate deeply with the reality of the Anthropocene and climate change.

At just over 100 pages of text with a map, timeline of historical events, notes, references, and an Afterward by Norman Fleury, the book is an inviting one-sitting read. In its hip-pocket sized format, heartfelt humility, and meditative circularity, it invites the reader to return and also meaningfully engage with a concerned community of activists in the process of prairie reconciliation.

Herriot dedicates his 2016 meditation “[t]o those who take up the work of reconciliation” (v). Herriot’s own work begins “with the act of recognizing and honouring what was and is native, but has been evicted” (13). The honesty, humility, and compassion of Towards a Prairie Atonement offer lessons that extend beyond prairie horizons, enriching those of us seeking paths of reconciliation in all our relationships.

Review by Susie Hammond, a Seattle-based Canadian poet. Susie’s awards include the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholarship for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, and residencies from The Banff Centre and Catalonia’s Faber for the Humanities. She is an editor, arts educator, youth mentor, and member of the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild.

An Ancient and Modern Silence: A Review of Sue Goyette’s Penelope in First Person

In her seventh book of poetry, Sue Goyette rewrites The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, moving the ever-patient, ever-faithful Penelope from the sidelines of the story into the spotlight. Much of Western canon depends on the stifling of women’s voices and Penelope in First Person addresses this by exploring Penelope’s experience within the epic—her disorientation, grief, rage, rebellion, hope, and love. Although a chorus of characters speak, including the insatiable suitors, the hot-headed prince Telemachus, an unnamed goddess, objects like Penelope’s bedroom door and ceiling, and even Odysseus himself, Penelope is the centre of this story—a story familiar to many women: that of waiting, of isolation, of duty. “Funny how anger can be so ancient and so modern, the goddess muses,” and through Goyette’s precise and passionate telling, Penelope’s journey into reclamation is rendered fully relevant to our contemporary world (23).

A long poem relayed in a series of couplets, each page of Penelope represents yet another day, the words both weaving and unravelling the queen’s intimate thoughts. Within Penelope’s waiting period, Goyette builds urgency though refrain and motif. Almost every page returns to the same phrases (“I wake,” “I dress dutifully,” “I’m asked/I reply,” and “If I know anything”), drawing attention to the restrictive routine of Penelope’s waking hours. Rather than stagnating the narrative, the repetition amplifies Penelope’s voice, her pleading and her protest. Aware of her own echo, Penelope starts to mock herself, saying, “I wake to the same day. I’m asked, I reply./ I dress dutifully. If I know anything about loss/ it’s about loss” (26). Later, impatience and pain warp her litany: “I awake, I woke am asked/ reply and say:/ (dutifullydutifullydutifullydutifullydutifully)/ if anything/ my loss is mortal and has been acting like a goddess” (64).

Goyette also uses the poem’s reoccurring phrases, together with striking imagery, to demonstrate Penelope’s transformation throughout the story. When awake, Penelope must cope with the angst of her fatherless son, her powerlessness to rule the kingdom in which she has been abandoned, and her longing for and anger towards her adventuring husband, never mind the increasingly alarming harassment from the suitors: “There’d be no stopping that ass,/ I’m told. Smile, I’m told. Show me your tits” (55). Only in her dreams is Penelope free, and after nights of self-discovery and self-expression, her “waking” becomes more and more surreal. She first wakes to “visitors at the door” but soon wakes “to goddess” (9, 23). She wakes as a horse, a rabbit, a bird, a flower, a hound, and other people and objects start to wake too. “The door wakes to the suitors talking to it,” “Telemachus wakes in thunder,” “the bed wakes to Penelope,” and “the feast wakes in a house” (41, 46, 53, 68). As Penelope learns to define herself in new and powerful ways—“Middle finger up, the goddess coaches”—her dreams start to blend with her waking reality (24).

At the same time, Penelope’s voice is one firmly rooted in veracity. She is a woman with “stretch marks and slur, pucker and pouch” (33). She drinks too much, feels shame, weeps and rages. “I banter. I cajole. I screech/ the crooked logic women know when our hearts are aghast and silenced,” she says, and on some of the most satisfying pages, Penelope truly tells it like it is: “Are you the lady/ who’s been waiting for a husband for a pathetically long time?/ I’m asked. Are you fucking kidding me? I reply” (11, 28). There is nothing passive in Penelope’s waiting, in her role in this story. Drawn by Goyette, when Penelope “dutifully, womanly, stomp[s], loss migrates to animal, braying” (29).

Penelope in First Person is a poem about the reclamation of voice, story, and self. “I dress my wound dutifully,” says Penelope at the beginning of her waiting, but in order to heal she must first “bleed the thick grief keeping [her] quiet” (18, 42). By the end of the poem, her loss is transformed from a wound into “another slit so [she] may blossom” (67). By giving Penelope control of her narrative, Goyette allows for the healing of old wounds created by centuries of silence.

Review by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press

Transmissions: A Review of Leontia Flynn’s The Radio

Trust a poet to come along and to do a better job than most at articulating my thoughts and anxieties. Leontia Flynn is a poet that I’ve been following for years, exploring with her the pressures of inner life through her intimate portraits of Northern Ireland. Flynn’s poetic skill lies in her astute power of observation, wit, humour, allusion, and superb mastery of form. Her fourth book of poetry, The Radio, continues where she left off in her third collection, Profit and Loss, where marriage, motherhood, and her father’s Alzheimer’s took centre stage before the backdrop of the banking crisis.  In her fourth book family life remains central to the collection, only this time it’s set against the “Age of Interruption” (“Third Dialogue” 65), a life of relentless technologies, transmissions and “mobile phones beside our plates: our shiny black talisman” (“Malone Hoard” 48).

The Radio, originally published by Cape Poetry (2017), republished by Wake Forest University Press (2018)

The first section, “The Child, the Family . . .”, focuses on Flynn’s personal life—in particular motherhood. The sonnet, “Yellow Lullaby”, captures motherhood, with the fabulous image of the poet “barrelling out like some semi-deranged / trainee barista” towards her crying baby (4). She describes herself at her child’s cot with “the limb that moved, the light that shone, / the hand that soothed her and the flesh that fed” (4). In Flynn’s hands, the act of soothing a child becomes much more, speculating through its cries that the baby communes “with the unborn and the dead” (4). This chilling description could allude to the idea that if she does not see to her child, it will be lost to the spirit-world. Alternatively, it could refer to real-world dangers that she needs to keep away from her infant. These real-world dangers are pervasive within the technological world of “updates. High alerts / the BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ of following information” (“Third Dialogue” 64).

The long, title poem, “The Radio”, begins with a radio as it “hoots and mutters, hoots and mutters / out of dark, each morning of my childhood” (11). The aural imagery brings back childhood memories of listening to the crackling radio at breakfast and yet such a line suggests a threat. While Flynn uses the radio as a portal through which “the outside world / comes streaming, like a magic lantern show, / into our bewildered solitude” the radio acts as a device for violence (11). Rural Irish life is depicted through the “Charolais cow”, “the marvellous bungalow” and “birdsong in chimneys” (12) But it is overshadowed by the “the half-ignited powder keg of Belfast” that lurks just beyond the radio (12). However, the mother of the household, who is “small, freaked out, pragmatic, vigilant;”, stands guard “like a sentential, by the sink” trying to resist the “harrowing radio” and keep her children safe from the violence that exists outside their peaceful world (11, 12).

In the second section, “…And the Outside World”, while the Troubles may be over, there are other troubles. I remain suspicious with Flynn, aware of the intrusion of the “glazed God’s-eye / of the transmitter” in Flynn’s fabulous poem, “The Mast” (51). This eye of the transmitter takes me back to the radio in the title poem that keeps watch over the poet’s mother, now this eye keeps watch over Flynn and the “glittering urban scree”, the city, “parks and back bars”, and the inhabitants that “stroke like pets / familiar devices” (50, 51).

A stand out poem for me in the third section, “Poems Conceived as Dialogues Between Two Antagonistic Voices”, is the third dialogue between “Mother of Older Child, Imploded”, with “The Awesome Voice of the Internet” (63). Here Flynn’s pressure of raising a child against the backdrop of the internet mirrors the mother who “stands, like a sentinel, by the sink” protecting her children from “the outside world” that “comes streaming in” (“The Radio” 11).

The Radio is an exceptional collection of poetry. Leontia Flynn’s powerful observations on motherhood and family life contrasted with the Troubles and technology makes for an unforgettable read. Clearly Flynn is a poet with “an ethics: which instructs” in this “Age of Interruption” (“August 30th 2013” 24, “Third Dialogue” 65) In the end I wonder what hope I have in resisting the external pressures that exist as the Internet proclaims, “I’m the Bright, White Spirit of the Age” (“Third Dialogue” 65). Flynn’s “Mother Imploded” has an answer, one which seems almost a revolutionary one, and that is to take a breather from the external pressures by “sitting down” (“Third Dialogue” 65).

Review by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press.

Note: all citations refer to the original print version from Cape Poetry, 2017.

Millennial Musings: On High’s Wry Critique of Individualism

Neil Surkan’s debut poetry collection, On High, grows out of his chapbook Super, Natural (Anstruther Press 2017). Surkan’s wry wit combines cutting criticism of consumer culture and a deep respect for natural environments. However, this criticism is tempered by a desire to understand and create community; Surkan memorialises the attempts of a teenage boy to impress a girl at the mall (“Opportunistic Mystic” 56) alongside the death of a spider under a hiking boot (“Decreation” 80) and in doing so, gives each moment equal weight. Divided into four parts, On High begins at a surface-level documentary of the quotidian and gets deeper into the political and the personal with each section.

Opening on a path between a house and a beach, the first poem, “Directive,” does as its title suggests, ending with the missive and reassurance to “think less/ of your destination, more on where/ you’re bound to go. Or try walking at night. You won’t see what I mean, but you’ll know” (Surkan 3). In this poem, the speaker takes us down to the beach, through the summer sun and into the snow, getting distracted by cacti and other trails, and encouraging the reader to both put aside personal worries and to allow themselves to get lost within the following poems. “Directive” invites the reader to momentarily step into the speaker’s footsteps, to test out the intense attention to mundane details, before committing to the entire book. What follows in the first section are intimate descriptions of human environments: city streets, a bar with live music, a dilapidated strip mall, a family kitchen.

The fastidious recounting of a subject is maintained throughout On High, and the speaker’s voice emerges as a Canada-traversing-earnest-but-disillusioned companion incapable of failing to note human peculiarities. In “The Branch-Breaker,” the speaker documents the lewd conversation of a group of teens as they walk by. Instead of critiquing the boys, the speaker reflects that he does not have access to their inner lives, and turns his focus away from the boys: “May the look I gave the branch-breaker,/ mostly hatred, grow every day a little more/ compassion. Tonight I’ll raise a growler/ to Angela, to skin that breaks but persists/ and to goodness—the kind that’s wordless” (5). The position of this poem as the second in the collection sets the tone for the book; though intent on observing all details, the speaker refuses to fill in gaps and insists on believing in the best of people.

Bridging the first two parts, the last poems of part one follow the speaker to spaces between the human/natural: the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, a hiking trail in Kananaskis, and on an unnamed mountain. “On High,” the first of two title poems, sets the speaker on a mountaintop as he considers the landscape as a “room” for the natural; a “room” inseparable from what it contains (21). Part two lunges into the relationships between humans and animals, focusing on how humans interact with non-humans and setting the tone with “Pelt”: “We hurl rocks/ while he’s stretched in the sun, the weasel./ He killed our entire coop/ but now has nostrils for eyes” (25). Again, the speaker avoids condemnation, but this time inserts himself into the action with “we,” acknowledging his complicity in the action that killed the weasel, regardless of whether the speaker was present (25). Instead of a harsh criticism of people who use or harm animals, the speaker shows the social and cultural milieu that results in these interactions. While the title of the book suggests a bird’s eye view—an amount of distance, or the separation of the speaker and subjects—Surkan’s speaker rejects this role by continually stating his presence and place within the subjects.

Parts three and four further the earlier themes by peopleing the spaces explored in the first half of the book: a white, suburban church goer is caught stealing funds because he feels owed (“Teardown” 54-5); a Serbian Uber driver heckles his passengers (“The Opposite” 45-7); the Penticton Reserve stands in contrast to tourists, businesses, and the celebratory First Nations statues (untitled 66-70); a mayor urges tourists to ignore the smoke from nearby wildfires (untitled 71); and, the speaker drives home to the Okanagan Valley, then leaves (“Verges, Now and Forever” 88-98). Throughout these sections, the speaker shows the failed interactions of humans with each other and nature as equal, and himself not an immune bystander, but an active participant. The poems become neither explanation nor justification, but an acknowledgement of human folly and apology. And yet, the book refuses to fall into melancholy. The metaphors and juxtapositions are fresh and playful, as in “Fawn” when the speaker notes that the hoof of a deer recently turned to roadkill is “black and sticky as bong resin” (82). This comparison is not irreverent, but the opposite, as it provides a new lens with which to view the interconnectivity of human and non-human life.

Surkan’s attention to poetics (rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, etc.) throughout On High serves to communicate these themes of human and non-human interactions and reciprocal responsibilities, while providing a tangible connection to the ‘real world’ through writing-back. A list of notes at the end of the book cites a range of sources from Keats’ canonical poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a YouTube video from 2016 of a group of men attempting to ride/hunt a moose while on a raft (101). Surkan draws inspiration from these sources, but also allows those perspectives into his work in the form of titles.

At turns witty, sarcastic, and blunt, On High contains stark observations from a speaker who loves humanity but recognises that “shame runs deeper than love” (“Apology” 74). Surkan’s speaker desires to observe interactions truthfully, though does so with an eye toward compassion and self-improvement, and through this mindset, asks readers to reconsider their own behaviours in the context of community.

Review by Allie McFarland, editor of the RVRB. Allie is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. and soundbite. Her chapbook Marianne’s Daughters, was published by Loft on EIGHTH in 2018.

No Second Breakfasts: A Review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

“You know what? Keep your damn hobbit.” Marlon James, author of the newly released Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin Random House), was “sick and tired of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings.” He claims, “African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings.” That was 2015, and as late as 2017 he still imagined the novel-in-progress as something for 12-year-olds to read, something “more Middle Earth than say, Mogadishu.”

Ah, yes. The best laid plans of mice and Man Booker prize winners. The story must have taken over. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is decidedly not for children. There are too many faces being ripped off and too many children being violently sodomized for the book to stay on school library shelves. In most fantasy novels the violence is epic and vague. Here it is graphic and specific. When a child—alive but not whole—hangs in a tree, James describes exactly which limbs have been severed and by how much (the right leg to the thigh, the left leg to the knee, his left arm to the shoulder). The novel’s dark world—nobody loves nobody—resembles more closely the Jamaican neighbourhoods of his award-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings than, say, Lord of the Rings. Set in a mythical land, Black Leopard describes a fellowship of nine characters (some with special powers) going on a quest. See? Nothing like Tolkien. Another comparison (the tag was first teased by James himself) has been made by hyping the novel as the “African Game of Thrones.” Don’t be fooled. The game here is fought at a different level. These players hope only for escape from traumatic pasts. Or less. Perhaps only an occasional diversion: sex and violence as a respite from the trauma of sex and violence.

James grew up reading genre-defining fantasy novels, but Black Leopard is genre-busting. The Tolkien canon seems to exert on James both a push and a pull, acting as both touchstone and erratic lodestone. Speaking to Pembroke College (Oxford) at the annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, he confessed that his research into African mythology led to “almost a complete inversion of everything that I knew as storytelling.” For example. the African midnight, “noon of the dead… was a joyous time when ancestors would come out.” Unlike their “wussy” counterparts, African vampires can kill you in broad daylight. “That inversion forced me to rethink everything I hold. And I still hold on to them because I’m still a Western kid.”

But in Black Leopard James has subverted the fantasy story itself. It is one thing to replace the Celtic/Nordic/Germanic monsters, and a different thing entirely to replace the worldview—that crusade premise that underpins much fantasy fiction. Heroes normally come from safe places—known, comforting, populated by good people—and venture out to battle evil that is categorically the “other.” Hobbits (read: middle-class Englishmen) are used to their six meals a day and comfortable hobbit holes. Their squabbles are few and petty. Sauron’s (read: foreign) evil approaches, but the stalwart hobbits will muster their finest hobbit hour.

Tracker, the protagonist of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, leaves a home that bears no resemblance to Hobbiton. The violent father who rapes Tracker’s mother is actually Tracker’s violent grandfather. Or he may be both. Chew on that for a bit. There are no second breakfasts or afternoon teas here. In Lord of the Rings, the travelling companions are noble and good. Boromir becomes untrustworthy only because of the corruption of the Ring—that ultimate symbol of the otherness that must be destroyed. But in Black Leopard the entire world is corrupted, with nobility and grace making anomalous appearances. When Tracker helps to save certain deformed children (the Mingi, who are usually destroyed at birth) it is Tracker himself that becomes the foreigner, becoming other. The same command of language that earned Marlon James his Booker prize is on display here. But because Tracker has preternatural olfactory powers, the author’s skills are now turned to finding different ways to describe the smell of ass sweat or a girl’s “koo.” If the world is rank and disheartening, the narrative arc is yet compelling. Tracker searches for a stolen boy, and we readers hope that—along the way—he finds what is missing, what was stolen from himself.

Review by Cameron G. Muir, a writer of contemporary and historical fiction. Previously he was employed as a lawyer, disc jockey, zoo keeper, brick worker, house painter, landman, piano mover, boiler deslagger, surveyor, radio columnist, clothier, oil tycoon, and short order chef (many of which occupations he left of his own accord, but not all).