I 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.