Friday 4 March 2016

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson

I still read far more 'literary' fiction than speculative fiction and by following various prize shortlists and taking note of Guardian reviews, etc I read plenty of literature from around the world. Nonetheless I doubt whether I would have read Tade Thompson's Making Wolf unless The Kitschies judges had put it on one of their shortlists.


Weston is a supermarket security guard living in London but returns to the city of his birth, Ede in Alcacia - think south-west Nigeria, now an independent state, after the civil war had turned out differently in this slightly alternate world - for his Aunt's funeral. After bragging that he is a homicide detective at the funeral he is kidnapped by a paramilitary organisation and told to investigate the death of a national hero who was trying to bring a modicum of peace to the war torn nation. What follows is a fantastic noir as Weston becomes embroiled in all manner of difficult political, moral and social dilemmas.
Tone is difficult to get right in any novel but really difficult in a novel like this. Dry laconic humour, bursts of horrific violence, sex and longing, moral decay, the ironies of a corrupt yet fascinating social order. Add to that the long term legacy of colonialism and the ongoing effects of imperialism and racism, and lots of detail that a European audience might not be familiar with (including me!). This is a novel that will challenge your ideas and expand your horizons as it entertains.

Thompson almost gets it all right - sexual politics in Making Wolf is tricky because we see through the eyes of Weston and you have to increasingly question everything that Weston sees and thinks as the novel progresses - but I still think we get an unnecessary and uncomfortable preponderance of the male gaze at certain points despite the fact that the novel's femme fatales get their righteous anger, their good reasons and strong character arcs. Decide for yourselves. 

Otherwise, in what is a fast paced, always compelling, often exciting narrative, Thompson gets it right again and again and forces us to figure out what we'd be doing in similar circumstances. I don't mean to suggest that it becomes a 'what would I do' kind of narrative. Thompson's text is far too political and nuanced for that. Weston's problems aren't just moral, but practical and quotidian too. The text gives you a tremendous sense of how damaged and compromised we can become when faced with situations beyond our control, our experience and our imagination.

It delivers what all the best noirs do: corruption, violence, temptation and hypocrisy, the sense of being on the edges of society, at risk of your life and deep in the hidden and foul mire of excess and depravity that remains hidden at the 'top' of society.

It's a text that will provoke you to make judgements and judge even as you wonder if there are any right answers: maybe he is on the right side; maybe she does the wrong things for the right reasons; Weston does or doesn't end up on the side of the Angels; and so on. And again, a novel that wants us to make up our own minds and manages to provide that platform is still fairly unique.

Finally, for me Making Wolf has proved to be a tremendous follow up read to N K Jemisin's The Fifth Season. When you're reading shortlists you get a much better sense of ambition and scope - or, at least, different kinds of ambition and scope - and the different ways texts can deal with the same kinds of ideas and the challenges writers face. I think I appreciate both novels even more because of the debates and comparisons going on in my head.

There's a good discussion with Tade, Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Kate Elliott and Cindy Pon at The Book Smugglers on "Culture, history and novels" here.

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