Sunday, November 15, 2015

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson  is one the authors whose work I first encountered in The Apex Book of World SF 2, one in a series of anthologies trying to showcase genre fiction from outside the US and the UK. Thompson is from Nigeria although he currently lives in the UK. He says his Yoruba roots influence his writing heavily and that is certainly the case of Making Wolf. It is his first novel and it turns out to be something of a thriller. It is a very violent novel, includes noir elements but also comments on the political situation in West Africa at the moment. It doesn't fail to point out the sad legacy of colonialism either. Thompson manages to turn this mixture into a novel well worth reading.

Weston Kogi was sent to the UK during one of the more violent spells in the history of his country of birth. The aunt that oversaw his move stayed behind and has recently passed away. For the first time since boyhood does he return to his home country. He makes the fatal mistake of bragging about his career in the UK, telling his family that he is a homicide detective in London. He soon gets singled out for the rather delicate job of investigating the murder of Papa Busi, a local hero and one of the few people in the country to be respected by just about everybody. The political minefield Kogi is forced to walk into is way beyond what a supermarket security guard normally faces. Any misstep could be his last. And he missteps frequently.

For his story Thompson creates a fictional nation of Alcacia, wedged in between Nigeria and Cameroon. It is clearly inspired by Nigeria but with enough differences that Thompson is probably still allowed to enter the country. Alcacia is a bit of a mess. Corruption is rampant and the government has had to leave control of large parts of the country to two opposing rebel forces. The fighting appears to have reached a stalemate but an end to the conflict is not in sight. All parties in the conflict would have the murder of Papa Busi remain a mystery, something that makes Kogi's task significantly more difficult.

One of the main themes in the book is how Kogi is not at home in the nation of his birth any more. Life in the UK has changed him and while he still has a firm understanding of the customs of his people, the country has changed in his absence. It causes him to make several serious mistakes. He is not quite as naive as a western but in the eyes of the Alcacians the difference is hardly noticeable. They mercilessly use his ignorance. The main character spends most of the novel trying to figure out who he can trust, what he wants out of life and whether he wants it in Alcacia or the UK. I was very impressed with the character development in this novel.

The conflict Kogi is dragged into is a brutal one. Thompson doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions of violence. He meets some people with very little regard for human life, which in a country where the police can be bought easily (if you have the cash) is very dangerous indeed. Especially early on in the novel you can feel Kogi is out of his depth. He doesn't see the violence coming, doesn't understand the consequences of his mistakes and doesn't really want to be part of it either. Along the way he becomes desensitised. A development that disturbs him greatly but one that he seems powerless to do anything about. At the beginning of the novel the reader perceives Kogi as a decent guy, at the end of it he is completely transformed.

Violence is everywhere in this novel and Thompson doesn't spare the reader any of it. The westernised Kogi has some bitter observations about the legacy of colonisation, but also about the failure of the Alcacians to tear down the colonial power structures. Violence is the predictable outcome and nobody can rise above it. Corruption sticks to everybody. From the western diplomat, eager to be fooled into thinking he is saving black children, to the area boys who 'protect' their territory, all are complicit in the violence. There is very little space between predator and prey. In its treatment of violence,  Making Wolf reads like Joe Abercrombie set in the real world.

There is the violence, the malaria, the veneral diseases, the appalling heat and staggering poverty but things are not all bad in Alcacia. For Kogi opportunities present themselves that he would never get in the UK. He is held back there, stuck in a job he doesn't particularly want with little prospect of advancement. Although it doesn't usually manifest itself as naked racism, he feels the white population excludes him. He is allowed to get only so far. In Alcacia however, almost anything is possible if you bring enough money. He may not be able to join the police force, but setting himself up as a private investigator is no problem. So, one foot in a superficially just UK society, battling systemic racism, or bribing your way to a dream unachievable by other means. It is not such an easy choice despite the risk the second option carries.

With all its graphic descriptions of violence and other forms of human misery, Making Wolf is not a particularly easy book to read. It made me uncomfortable in several places, which is probably what the author aimed for. You need to be able to stomach quite a lot to handle this book. That being said, it is a lot more than just violence. Thompson has his reasons to tell the story the way he does. He wants the book to be more than a simple fast-paced thriller and succeeds gloriously. It's a book that hides a lot of food for thought under the surface. I've been spoiled with a great many good books this year. Making Wolf is another book I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Book Details
Title: Making Wolf
Author: Tade Thompson
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Pages: 307
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4956-0747-9
First published: 2015

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