There is nothing brief about Jamaican born author Marlon James’ third novel. I also haven’t tallied up the killings but there’s considerably more than seven, obviously the Man Booker Prize judges were not a literal bunch as this scooped the 2015 award. Central to the novel is not an actual killing, but the real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley, in his home in December 1976. This occurred at a time when tensions between political factions and between gangs were particularly high and Marley was on the verge of putting on a Peace Concert.
This is the story of the events leading up to the shootings and the aftermath, which rumbles on through to the last section of the book set in 1991. Warning: This is not a quick read. Using the accounts and viewpoints of a number of characters- various dons and gang members, CIA agents, a one-night stand of Marley’s (who is referred to more or less throughout as The Singer), a journalist for “Rolling Stone” and the ghost (duppy) of a recently murdered politician amongst them, this is densely written stuff, conveyed in the language used by the character, much in the rhythms and patois of Jamaican slang. The reader needs to be prepared to read chunks with only a limited idea of what is going on, mostly the penny drops but not always. It is an experience akin to reading writers like William Faulkner or Don DeLillo , both of these James has rightly been compared to, and in my experience of all three of these I can very much appreciate the quality without fully buying into the product.
It is impressive. It is tense, violent, thorough and richly written and is a book whose importance is likely to be recognised for many years. Readers have compared it to the films of Quentin Tarantino but that might be to simplify matters, it might run deeper than that. (Perhaps of all of Tarantino’s films it is actually one of his least violent it feels closer to “Jackie Brown”, but you can’t help feeling that the whole of that excellent film would be just one incident in this book.) For a novel that is so visual, so alive and direct in its language I cannot imagine a film adaptation even beginning to capture the flavour.
I do think many readers will give up on this and by mid-way I was finding it hard to separate one gangland account from another but stick with it for the passage of time and distance in the novel in the last two sections seems to make things clearer. I imagine it would re-read very well.
The young Jamaican men in the 70’s have a thing about westerns and Clint Eastwood in particular and are living their lives along such principles. It is significant then, that the central character, Josey Wales, is named after an outlaw portrayed in film by Eastwood . Over time the battling for their community and political justice becomes blurred by harder drugs motivating a gangland economy based upon greed and here we see shades of the TV show “The Wire”. I think the whole thing is thought-provoking, it’s certainly time-consuming and once again very impressive. But was I entertained by it as a novel? Not always, and as a result cannot bring myself to give it a 5* rating. Probably of not too much concern to Marlon James, as it is likely to be one of the most memorable Man Booker Prize winners of recent years.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings was published in the UK by One World Books in 2014.