A Brief History of Seven Killings

Brief HistoryI began reading Marlon James’s new novel back in February, and it quickly became clear that I didn’t have the brain space for it. The multiple narrators, dialect, and full immersion into 1970s Jamaica required more than fragmentary bits of unfocused attention. Thankfully, I had already scheduled a week off from work just as I needed to attempt it again for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel.  Even giving it my full attention, there are sections I didn’t understand, but I understood enough to recognize this as a remarkable work. Given how much I loved James’s previous novel, The Book of Night Women, I am comfortable naming him as among my favorite contemporary authors.

Much of this book is set in Jamaica in the late 1970s, when Bob Marley was in ascendance, and rival gangs loyal to the JLP and the PNP, the two main political parties, take violent action to gain and maintain power. Much of the book focuses on the attempt to assassinate Marley (referred to in the novel as the “Singer”) in December 1976, just two days before a concert organized by the prime minister. Several characters in the novel are involved in or witnesses to the plot, and their connection to it comes up again and again as the action moves to New York in the 1980s and 90s.

Going into the novel, I knew nothing about Jamaican history and politics or Bob Marley or Rastafarianism, and James doesn’t offer any background information. He just throws readers in with a dead politician’s commentary on the living. This ghost reappears at the end of each section, but most chapters are narrated by people closer to the action—gang members, dons, a CIA agent, a Rolling Stone reporter, and a woman who’s gotten a little too close to it all. As a reader, I just had to ride along on the language and hope to catch up. The language, as well as the vivid characters, were very nearly enough, but I did eventually consult Wikipedia for some general background, and I watched a documentary about Bob Marley that was an enjoyable supplement.

In the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, James says that in trying to get this novel started, he realized that it needed to be “a novel that would be driven only by voice”—something in the vein of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (although, as it turns out, much longer and less comical). It is the voices that make this novel work. In my review of The Illuminations, I complained that that book felt too much like an exercise and not enough like a story. I suppose some readers would complain that this too feels too much like an exercise, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Here, the characters and their voices are too vivid, too alive and their story too big and consuming for this to seem like just authorial tricksiness.

I suppose if I’m going to go on about the voices, I should give you a taste. Here, for example, is Bam-Bam, recruited into the gang life as a boy, when his parents are killed in front of them:

Is a hell of a thing when a gun come home to live with you. The people who live with you notice it first. The woman I live with talk to me different. Everybody talk to you different when them see a new bulge in you pants. No, is not that at all. When a gun come to live in the house it’s the gun, not the person who keep it, that have the last word. It come between man and woman talk, not just serious reasoning, but even a little thing.

And this is Nina Burgess, a young women who’s not part of the action, but close enough to be touched by it:

It’s not the crime that bothers me. I mean, it bothers me like it bothers anybody. Like how inflation bothers me, I don’t really experience it but I know it’s affecting me. It’s not the actual crime that makes me want to leave, it’s the possibility that it can happen any time, any second now, even in the next minute. That it might never happen at all, but I’ll think it will happen any second now for the next ten years. Even if it never comes, the point is that I’ll be waiting for it and the wait is just as bad because you can’t do anything else in Jamaica but wait for something to happen to you. This applies to good stuff too. It never happens. All you have is the waiting for it.

This is a story of boys forced to grow up too soon, of good men turned bad, of bad men taking power wherever they find it, of powerless men trying to understand (and failing). It’s an important story, not just because of its historical significance but because so many of the patterns depicted in its pages continue today—and not just in Jamaica. It’s a gorgeous, challenging book.

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20 Responses to A Brief History of Seven Killings

  1. June Seghni says:

    It’s really interesting reading this because I’m also doing an unofficial ‘read the Booker-list ‘thing’.I started A Brief History of Seven Killings earlier this week, and after 150 pages I cried ‘uncle.’ Personally I could take the contrast you mention between this book and The Illuminations ,and turn it completely on its head. The’ seven voices’ element, for me ,felt like a technically brilliant thing but a total turn off to read , and hard to get a handle on. I found myself having to keep referring back to the character list which perhaps I wouldn’t have done if I had read further, but I just lost the will to live.The Illuminations, however, really touched me..but I will admit to perhaps a bit of bias there- I come from Blackpool originally and so it had all sorts of personal resonances for me.
    I have read The Chimes, and A Spool of Blue Thread, and don’t feel I’ve read a possible winner yet. Looking forward to ‘A Little Life’ after stellar recommendations from friends in the US

    • Teresa says:

      I find it fascinating how different readers can respond differently to a book’s style. For me, the voices were so exciting that I had to stick with them, and I decided pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to sweat the details. But I can absolutely understand how it might get on someone else’s nerves.

      Out of the five I’ve read, I’d be happy to see this or Lila as winners (but I think those would be controversial choices for many readers).

      • June Seghni says:

        I have just read Lila and am an emotional wreck. The poignancy of the relationship between Lila and her husband… It would be a worthy winner. I have yet to read A Little Life and my US friends are all raving about it so it may yet knock Lila off my top spot, but we shall see.

      • Teresa says:

        Have you read Gilead and Home? They’re just as wonderful as Lila. I can’t say enough good things about Robinson’s writing, even though I know she’s not in everyone’s wheelhouse.

  2. Do you think I would like it, or nah? I’ve been a bit put off by everyone saying how difficult a book it is — I’d certainly at least want to have a substantial chunk of time to devote to it. And maybe I should read up Jamaican history first. Then read this.

    • Teresa says:

      I have no idea whether you’d like it, but you might! There are things about it that I think you’d like, such as the way the language sings and the great characters and the layers of plot. But I think you’d know pretty quickly if it would work for you. The way it starts is pretty much the way it goes on, although some of the characters and circumstances change.

      As for reading up on Jamaica, the Wikipedia articles I linked would probably be sufficient. I don’t think deep knowledge is necessary, just a general sense of the landscape, which I didn’t really have.

  3. Deb says:

    Although I previously made this comment in your first Booker Prize post, I’ll say it again: I couldn’t finish this book. I think it was the violence that finally did me in–it seemed so endless and over-the-top. And, in places, James’s attempts to transcribe Jamaican patois to the page made me think (sadly) of the way Margaret Mitchell expressed Mammy’s voice in GONE WITH THE WIND (yes , I do realize both context and intent are completely different in James’s book). So, while it was clear to me that this is undoubtedly an important book, I just couldn’t make it through.

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely understand why this book wouldn’t work for everyone. I’m lucky that the stars aligned well enough that I was able to enjoy it this time–if I’d tried to persevere back in February, I’d have hated it by the end.

  4. lailaarch says:

    I was floored by this book, and by James’s talent. It is a BIG BOOK, and takes some time to read, but it’s one of my top five reads so far this year. (I read it in January.) You’re right on about the voices and how vivid and distinct they are. The book I read right after this felt so static and vanilla in comparison.

  5. Elle says:

    I read this too, and was so, so impressed. (My review is here: https://ellethinks.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/a-brief-history-of-seven-killings-by-marlon-james/) The Book of Night Women was definitely what impelled me to pick this up, like you, and I think, like you, Marlon James may be one of my favorite contemporary authors now. His debut novel is still out there to be read; I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s probably worth tracking down!

  6. Christy says:

    This book sounds intimidating, but your high praise may make me rethink my initial decision not to attempt it. Thanks for this review – those excerpts are great.

    • Teresa says:

      The nice thing about it is, as I told Jenny, you’ll probably know pretty quickly if it’s a book for you. Even when I initially gave up on it, I knew it was something I would probably like if I approached it at the right time.

  7. I might attempt this, because it sounds so interesting, but I’ll definitely need to do it on my upcoming vacation.

  8. Janakay says:

    I bought this several months ago, after reading a great review in The Guardian, but quickly put it aside—the timing wasn’t right just then for such a demanding book. After it made the Booker long list, it went to the top of my TBR pile. I’m now on my second attempt. Even just a little way into the book, however, it’s evident that James has enormous talent and I find his “voices” very vivid and believable, so I’ll see how it goes. Your review was most encouraging!

    P.S. I just finished “A Little Life”. An absorbing but very flawed read–I have to admit that it left me disappointed.

    • Teresa says:

      So far, your experience sounds a lot like mine. I hope it does hold up for you.
      And I begrudgingly give A Little Life credit for being absorbing, but I found the flaws to be overwhelming and impossible for me to get past. I know a lot of people love it, and I can understand why some would, but I’m befuddled by the near universality of the praise.

  9. Pingback: It’s Monday and we’re back from Tahoe! | Olduvai Reads

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