Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

DSCF1393Like many readers, I am a huge fan of the Man Booker Prize. As someone who loves literary fiction, I await each year’s long list with massive excitement. I usually try to read as many of the shortlisted books as I can, with last year’s His Bloody Project being one of, if not my favourite, book of the year (review here). Yet, despite what I saw as a master piece of a book, it did not take home the overall prize of the winner. That title was given to Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings.

As many people have noted, myself included, the book’s title of a ‘Brief History’ is somewhat ironic when compared to the very lengthy 688 pages, each one in rather tiny sized font. I think most people know that the plot of this book, if it can be reduced to one in particular, is a fictionalised account of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. As the blurb states, by ‘spanning three decades and crossing continents’, it really is an impressive book in terms of scale.  With the attempted assassination as a point which brings the characters together, the novel follows both the before and afters of the people who were either directly or indirectly involved, with all of the gripping dangers of reality.

If you go into this book solely because you are a lover of Bob Marley, then you’re probably going into it for the wrong reasons.  Whilst he does appear, mentioned only as the somewhat mysterious ‘Singer’, he is by no means the main part or point of this book. We do not get a narrative from his point of view, with Marley instead coming across as more of a symbol for the political and social unrest which resided in Jamaica in the 1970’s. I saw Marley as much more of a literary device for the author to explore wider themes surrounding the times, with his character perfectly reflecting the mythical proportions which with many Jamaican people became to think of  him in.

As I’ve already mentioned, this book is extremely heavy on the political and social environments, especially of those in Jamaica. As someone who knows basically nothing about this, or the Jamaican culture in general, this was fascinating. I can’t lay claim to how accurate the information in the book is (although I do know Marlon and his team put in a massive amount of crucial research for the book), but the author has such a way of writing that everything seemed wholly authentic. From the descriptions of life in the Jamaican Ghetto’s and poverty (downtown Kingston in particular) the gang wars, the state of the police and government; the amount of themes this book covers is quite staggering. A sentence which quite struck me ran as thus:

‘Nobody who kill a police going to hell but it something else to kill the Singer’ (p. 57).

As you can see, the Singer appears to have reached legendary proportions, with the ideas of laws and morals becoming much more complex and brutal in this setting than the basic ideas of right and wrong.  As we are shown time and time again, the police force themselves are often entirely corrupt, and Marlon attempts to bring some sort of recognition into how living under such circumstances would feel.

Perhaps it was my own lack of knowledge concerning politics, but one of the things which stopped me fully connecting with this book was the central themes surrounding politics and power. The two major political parties here are the JLP (Jamaican Labour Party), and the PNP (People’s National Party). The two main leaders of the ghetto each side differently, neither afraid to use force to get their way, resulting in an extremely corrupt environment both socially and politically. Yet we are also given various men who are political leaders, and the behind the scenes tactics they employ, which all started to become a bit too much. At times I struggled to identify who was who, and to remember what each person was after, with the overall scope being a bit too complex for me to understand as much as I wanted. I can see how this feeling would reflect the actual hectic disorder of the time but I feel like in order to get more from it I would need to do further research.

Not so much in plot, but in characters, this book was very reminiscent of a previous Man Booker winner, The Luminaries (review here). Just with this book, the character and cast list is simply huge, with an equally diverse cast of personalities. Additionally, just as Catton puts a cast list at the start of her novel, so does Marlon here. I’m so glad he did as the sheer amount of character perspectives can be a bit overwhelming, and this helped to ground my reading experience.

Following on from this train of thought I have to say how superb Marlon’s characterisation is here, especially in terms of dialects. In his acknowledgements, Marlon states that he realised this was a novel ‘that would be driven only by voice’ p. 687. If anything is going to be an overarching view of this book, it’s his own sentence. The difference in dialect, accent and tones, quite literally speaks volumes about the characters themselves, as well as the environments they live in.  As far as I can remember, I have never read anything which has characters speaking how I presume actual Jamaicans would, and I loved it. The grammar, the slang, the colloquialisms, it all gave such an added rich depth to the novel. I was also surprised by how many of the slang terms used by Jamaican’s have become somewhat mutated into my own English language, more closer to what we would describe as the talk of ‘chavs’. I’ve certainly picked up a few new interesting expletives to include in my repertoire. . . .

This is not a straightforward, typical novel, even with the grand plot aside. Marlon employs many literary techniques to make his novel far more interesting and somewhat experimental. The novel does not have the typical speech punctuation, meaning that in a book which is so heavily influenced by speech things can often become slightly confusing, relying on the reader to distinguish between the characters voices. The author also uses the device of stream of consciousness, something often used in literary modernism. Normally I don’t get on with writers who fall under this umbrella term , but here I thought Marlon employed it superbly for the ultimate effect. For example, there are many scenes where the characters are high on drugs, and so Marlon employs stream of consciousness to get across some of the crazy, hectic nature of their thoughts. This is one example through the character Bam-Bam:

‘…I want to swing the car door open and jump out and run all the way and run back and run again and sun so fast I fly and I want to fuck fuck fuck . . .we jump out and run down a street and the street is wet and the street is a sea and no, the street is air and im flying through it . . .’

Marlon is a very talented writer in his diverse abilities. He can go from a strong Jamaican dialect, to a very literary, very descriptive piece of prose. Although not a descriptive book in nature, the moments in which these are employed conjured fantastically vivid images, downtown Jamaica being one in particular:

‘It’s a rusty red chamber of hell that cannot be described so I will not try to describe it. It cannot be photographed because some parts of West Kingston, such as Rema, are in the grip of such bleak and unremitting repulsiveness that the inherent beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about just how ugly it really is. […] You could describe it in colours, red and dead like old blood, brown like clay, dirt or shit….’ (p. 81).

What I wasn’t expecting was the way the book explored ideas surrounding sexuality and gender. In a group of ruthless gang members, killers and drug dealers from a more judgemental time, you can imagine how the idea of homosexuality would be met. Yet it was the hypocrisy of these situations which interested me. Marlon explores the contradictions that outright homosexuality is deemed wrong, yet exceptable in certain instances. For example, when in prison and the only available source of sexual pleasure are the other male inmates, then this is fine. Yet as soon as you are free to chose women, yet actually chose men, then your choices of same sex pleasures are deemed unnatural .

Whilst this did not reach as high for me as His Bloody Project, I can fully understand why this novel won. How Marlon even attempted to undergo writing such a massively challenging book in style and plot is all too hard to fathom. He’s got this ability to move effortlessly beneath people’s skins, shedding each in turn as he moves fluidly to the next. Having said that, I did find the book can be challenging at times, especially with the heavy use of governmental and societal politics. I felt that the lead up to the attempted assassination was one of the strongest parts, with the middle dipping somewhat, and the last third picking up as the conclusion approaches ever nearer. Having left this book, and dwelled on it somewhat, I think it is most definitely a book which would benefit from multiple re-reads.

Have you read this? What did you think?

Do you think it is an accurate portrayal of Jamaican history?

Publisher: Oneworld

Rating: 4*/5*





















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