From the acclaimed author of The Book of Night Women comes a dazzling display of masterful storytelling exploring this near-mythic event. Spanning three decades and crossing continents, A Brief History of Seven Killings chronicles the lives of a host of unforgettable characters – slum kids, drug lords, journalists, prostitutes, gunmen and even the CIA. Gripping and inventive, ambitious and mesmerising, A Brief History of Seven Killings is one of the most remarkable and extraordinary novels of the twenty-first century
Rifling through the first few pages, the intrepid reader will notice a three and a half page cast list but fear not, unlike the Russian epics the characters here are easier to identify through name as well as deed. Only the most obscure players had me turning to the front for reference but even that was only an occassional break to the story.
Marlon James weaves a lot of threads together throughout the narrative from the politics of the cold war to the internecine local gang clashes in the impoverished inner cities; as well as the varied and disparate lives of many various people’s caught in the crossfire. In a sense the book is epic in both the overall view of the subjects discussed and on the personal level but in the end it didn’t quite convince me it was one of the giants of the modern literary world.
There are parts of the book I really enjoyed, the first two sections especially felt visceral and gritty, like a Jamaican version of the The Wire. Some of the points made are the same: the observance that there’s ‘not a single old man in the ghetto’, for instance and the treatment of women who are expected to breed offspring before their man dies (there is a tacit acceptance of this already) which is just the norm. It’s a stark depiction of Jamaica at the time and although it’s shocking it is also indicative of the nature of the lives led and the problems that society fails to fix continually and one thinks almost inevitably.
Each chapter has a different voice and is short which allows the plot to advance from many points of view and has the advantage of making a large cast of characters familiar quickly. Despite its length, the story initially feels snappy and as the lives of the abundance of characters unfold through a tightly woven plot, there are wonderfully human touches like Nina’s drop into sibilance when she gets annoyed which adds an extra layer of believability.
The maneuverings and power plays of politicians and gang bosses were as arresting as the struggles of everyday people just trying to get by, this heady and emotional mix helps the reader carry on even in the face of the culture of violence that pervades Kingston. Bob Marley (elevated to almost mythic proportions here) is a fascinating character as well and the only one who doesn’t get a first person voice in the book, his role being to show how somebody with a message will always be subject to political propaganda despite their best intentions, or perhaps in spite of them.
There are a number of points that may put the reader off, the relentless Jamaican colloquialisms I personally found were not a problem, the context is usually clear enough to distinguish the point of the words; the copious amounts violence and swearing are another. Personally none of that particularly bothered me, except the odd grim scene but around the 500 page mark, I started to wary of the incessant repetition of certain phrases which eventually left me cold as the desired effect they had at the beginning had dissipated.
Likewise the vulgarities around sex, particularly the homosexual variety seemed more childish than anything, a lack of education would also be a fair assessment but if I can put my realism hat on for a second I have to question why no other slang terms for such subjects had been invented in the sixteen years the book covers, a minor – and possibly over picky – point but it rankles. There is a lack of speech marks too, an omission that usually has me seething but James’ text was a lot easier to follow than (for example) Cormac McCarthy’s sometimes confusing dialogue but ranting about that would just be covering old ground again as regular readers will recall.
The late introduction of some new cast members didn’t do much for me as I didn’t feel I got time to really know them as events rushed on but as they were mainly supporting cast, it matters little in the end. Upon reflection I liked a lot of this book more than I disliked, when it was strong, it far outweighs the negatives. It wasn’t quite the amazing book it could have been (or the hype suggested), something a little tighter would have been better but if you fancy a believable portrayal of the life in 70’s Jamaica with its street philosophies and horrors then this is well worth a read. The author doesn’t compromise with his characters – nobody comes out clean or unscarred – and nor should he have to, this is an unapologietic look at what people will do for power but also just to survive.