Central to Tade Thompson’s debut and Kitschie award-winning novel Making Wolf is the question of whether you can go home again. While the sentiment usually relates to the rose-coloured memories of childhood, the dreams and aspirations of youth, for Weston Kogi it’s more a question of practicality. Given that he and his sister fled the West African country of Alcacia in the middle of a civil war, returning home poses genuine safety risks. What has compelled Weston to return is the death of his aunt, the only person to care for him and his sister after their mother died. She was also instrumental in securing the siblings safe passage to London. But while he owes it to his Aunty to be there for her funeral, Weston has no intention of staying longer than he has to. Alcacia, a place he associates with violence and death, is not his home. Rather, it’s London where he belongs.
Weston's anxieties about being back in Alcacia are realised when, mere hours after his Aunty is buried, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy surrounding the death of Papa Busi, a much loved figure respected by the Government and by the two rebel factions currently blaming each other for his death. Having believed Weston's white lie that he’s a homicide cop in London—he is actually a security guard at a supermarket—both the Liberation Front of Alcacia (LFA) and the People's Christian Army (PCA) see Weston as the perfect person (or the perfect patsy) to investigate Busi's death. As a result, he is drugged and kidnapped at his Aunty's funeral by an old acquaintance (and former school bully), Churchill Okuta. Church represents the LFA and makes Weston an offer he'd be unwise to refuse if he values his life. On returning to his hotel room Weston is promptly abducted by soldiers from the PCA and, like the LFA, they provide Weston with little choice but to discover which of the two rebel factions killed Papa Busi.
If it isn't already clear, Making Wolf is a crime novel hyped up on performance-enhancing drugs sourced either from Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah. For a great deal of the book Thompson follows the conventions of noir, introducing both a love interest whose life is threatened and a femme fatale whose astonishing looks ultimately seduce our hero:
It was as if she was so slight that reality parted to let her exist, but only barely [ . . . ] Her skin shone, glowed with an inner light that was attractive. Given a strong wind, she might take off.
And then there's the over-the-top violence, in sudden moments of brutality that are genuinely shocking. In particular, there's a rape scene (I'll skip the details) that does feel like a gratuitous step too far. And yet I don't want to leave the impression that Making Wolf is just another ultraviolent crime novel where the hero's hands are steeped in blood and women are just objects of lust to be dispensed with in the most awful ways possible. There's a great deal of smarts driving this book, especially in the way Thompson uses the conventions of the genre to comment on sexist and violent attitudes toward women.
Based on my experience of noir I guessed early on that it was the femme fatale, Papa Busi's wife Diane, who committed the murder. The scene where Weston confronts Diane with the truth should be a roll-your-eyes moment, a revelation so predictable that the twist in all its postmodern glory is that there's no twist at all. Instead what we get is something far more powerful. Refusing to admit to any crime, Diane explains why a wife might be motivated to kill her husband. Her description of what she suffered at the hands of Papa Busi is cold and forensic in voice and yet genuinely confronting and horrible to read. But it’s also never gratuitous, and more importantly, her lengthy, horrible account refocuses the scene. Rather than provide the reader with the typical noir flourish of the gumshoe confronting the criminal, Thompson has this critical moment be about the victim and the sexual violence she experienced.
And then there's Nana, Weston's love interest, an ex-girlfriend whom he left behind when he and his sister were shuffled off to England by his Aunty. Weston almost immediately reignites his relationship with Nana and their time together—even with the threat of violence hanging over his head—compels Weston to reevaluate Alcacia to the point where he considers the possibility of staying permanently. Thompson writes Nana as a strong and independent character and she soon became my favourite person in the book. So much so, and given the novel's pervasive violence, that in my ecopy I scribbled the note: please Tade, please don't kill her off. I was angry then when Nana does, inevitably, vanish for half the novel. And yet, when she reappears toward the end of the book not only isn't she dead, but we discover that she's been working alongside Church and the LFA all along. Nana's explanation for her betrayal brilliantly underscores the sexism inherent in a society that views women as a commodity:
"I'm thinking, after all this, any idiot would know that a woman would find it difficult to forgive. Hell hath no fury and all that. Wise words you know. Simple, oft-repeated, but seriously wise. But you, Weston, you came back after all this time and believed that I would just forget all that pain and become the biddable lover that you left behind. [ . . . ]"
"You love me," I said.
"No, I really don’t. You cured me of that."
It's a fantastic takedown of the usual alpha male bullshit, and what's all the more wonderful is that what begins as a scene of betrayal for Weston transitions into a moment of empowerment and agency for Nana.
Nana goes on to refer to Weston's history as one of the "Holloway babies," and this is a critical element to Weston’s backstory and to his reluctance to identify as West African. To cut a long story short, Weston explains that in the early '70s a gynaecologist at the Royal Holloway Infirmary sexually abused his patients over a three-year period. One of those was Weston's mother. When it came to light that Weston and his sister were not the biological children of their father, they were essentially disowned. This is why Weston's Aunty became such an important fixture in his formative years after his mother died.
It's no surprise, then, that Weston is conflicted about his birth country and his identity, a conflict that’s initially expressed as hatred, and a desire to leave as soon as possible. Yet it’s Weston’s sister, a character we never meet, who foreshadows how Weston will ultimately deal with this internal struggle. In a text message to her brother after he confirms he’s landed safely she says: "You're a Yoruba man. Alcacia is your home. You’re only renting England. Stop whining."
The notion that Weston is "renting" England is a provocative statement in the context of what it says about the immigrant experience. But for Thompson Making Wolf isn’t a novel arguing against assimilation and multiculturalism. While Weston rationalises his decision to stay in Alcacia because there’s little waiting for him back in London— ". . . getting stuck on the underground and the smallness of my flat and chasing shoplifters in the car park and dead or dying dreams and aspirations . . ."—it’s the first statement made by Weston’s sister that resonates throughout the novel:
You’re a Yoruba man.
For Weston the question isn't whether he’s willing to give up London, but rather whether he’s able to reconcile the thornier aspects of his identity. His hatred for Alcacia is genuine, he despises the violence and the corruption and the blinkered worldview. But in a sense this is just a gloss, an excuse not to go home. What genuinely upsets Weston is how his father treated him, how he and his sister have been labelled Holloway babies, how his identity has been compromised from birth. But as the novel progresses and Weston is drawn into the shenanigans around Papa Busi’s death and as he reignites his feelings for Nana and as he becomes complicit in the brutality and backstabbery of his birth country, he begins to hone down those thorny edges. More importantly, as our guide to Alcacia, not just the violence, but the rich and layered culture, Weston demonstrates that he hasn’t forgotten where he’s from. To use a terrible metaphor, Weston is the lapsed Catholic or Jew who is fully aware of all the rituals but never performs them. To horribly torture the metaphor further, Weston's journey is to fall off his horse or have an existential conversation with a burning bush as he slowly begins to acknowledge and work through the broken parts of his identity.
And the thing is, at novel’s end Weston is still not perceived as a Yoruba man by his father, by Nana, and by Church. Nor does Thompson provide the reader or Weston with any optimism about his future; life in Alcacia as the outsider—as the traditional gumshoe, working alone—will be difficult and treacherous and littered with further acts of violence. But Weston has come to terms with this. He’s discovered that coming home again is as much about understanding who you are, who you’ve always been, then choosing one home over another.
Ian Mond is the co-host of The Writer and the Critic podcast with Kirstyn McDermott and blogs on his website The Hysterical Hamster. It’s on his blog where he’s begun the task of reading and reviewing the nominated novels of over twenty-five award shortlists. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.