A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: 2014
Setting: Jamaica | New York, USA
Rating: 5 Solid Stars
On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.
Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts—A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 70s, to the crack wars in 80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 90s. Brilliantly inventive and stunningly ambitious, this novel is a revealing modern epic that will secure Marlon James’ place among the great literary talents of his generation. (Source: Goodreads)
The irony of it is that there is nothing ‘brief’ about this book as alluded to in the title. It is an EPIC, action packed 686 paged book, with 75+ characters, more than 20 narrating voices and covers a span of almost 20 years. It is a book that requires grit, concentration, some background on Jamaica during the time period covered, the heart for Patois and a LOT of time.
Disclaimer 1: This is not a book for the faint hearted.
On December 3rd, 1976, 2 days before the ‘Smile Jamaica’ peace concert that Bob Marley was headlining, seven men with guns stormed his home at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica and opened fire. He was shot in the chest and arms, his wife Rita, on the head and his manager in the stomach. Some of his band members were also shot. The gunmen were never apprehended. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is on a micro scale a fictional retelling of who these gunmen were and their fates post assassination attempt. James takes full artistic liberties with this retelling, it almost had me believing the events transpired exactly as depicted in the book.
On a Macro scale, this brilliant book is about post-colonial Jamaica fall out. About the social constructs of a third world country and it’s complex political underpinnings at a time when the country was faced with unprecedented cases of gang violence, gang supremacy wars, political tension, pervasion of drugs and social disintegration; fuelled by external influences from the CIA, the Cubans and Colombians, in a battle of competing ideologies - socialism vs capitalism.
There is no clear protagonist but James’ characterisation is daring and rich. With over 70 characters and more than 20 voices – from CIA agents to drug dealers, petty thugs, gunmen, hitmen and groupies – A Brief History hosts a bevy of unforgettable characters and James brings all of them to life! They are imperfect, complex, multilayered and multidimensional, even the criminals and gunmen are not denied their humanity which is absolutely brilliant.
I was particularly drawn to Bam Bam, one of the gunmen who attacked ‘The Singer’s’ house. We are introduced to Bam Bam early on in the book when he is 14yo. He witnesses his parents’ gruesome murder at the hands of a gang. Bam-Bam is one of those people who simply had no chance in life – a young boy impelled by savagery towards savagery of his own as an adult. Isn’t that the tragedy for most people born in slums across the world - growing up surrounded by so much violence, you wind up a violent adult? Violence begets violence?
“Killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.” (Bam Bam)
Nina Burgess aka Kim Clarke aka Dorcas Palmer aka Millicent Segree is another favourite. The only dominant female voice in this book, Nina transforms herself throughout the course of the book assuming different identities, all in an attempt to escape Jamaica and the violence. She had this consuming need to leave Jamaica and everything it stands for and yet the more she tried to escape, the more the forces were pulling her back in.
Violence. Drugs. Sex. Homosexuality. Murders and Killings. Politics. James really gets in there with the descriptions.
Disclaimer 2: If any of these topics irk you or if you feel a certain type of way reading violent scenes, you may want to reconsider picking this one up. If this is however right up your alley, you are in for a treat. The way James describes violence is almost poetic. You get caught up in the ‘papapa’ of the shooting and highs and lows of being on cocaine and crack. A scene that stood out for me was when Josey Wales goes completely nuts over something as trivial as a junkie throwing some piss at him, he walks into the crack house, 2 guns, one in each hand and kills everyone in sight! That was so badass!
Disclaimer 3: If you are not a fan of cursing, coarse words and language, this might not be the book for you.
I loved that James’ makes no apologies for writing half the book in Patois in all its vulgarity, splendour and lyricism. Whilst this was for me the most difficult part of the book, you get the hang of it as you go along. I must admit I cheated and read whilst listening to the audiobook, but this made it so much easier to read it faster than I would have otherwise. The audio book is narrated by 7 people, each with a different voice and accent – it almost felt like watching a movie. To be honest, I do not think I would have enjoyed the book as much as I did had it not been for the audio.
This book is a masterpiece and is about so many things that the longest review would still not have scratched the surface.
I highly recommend this read. 5/5 Stars