A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize
|A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: This is the work of a master story teller creating characters and reinterpreting real events till they all seep effortlessly into our imaginations. Understandably violent but oh so brilliant, please don't let the length or the fact it's shortlisted for 2015's Man Booker put you off – this could be the best thing you read this year.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 704||Date: June 2015|
|Publisher: One World Publications|
On December 3rd 1976 a group of armed men go to Bob Marley's Jamaican home in Hope Road on a mission to kill 'The Singer'. No one will be arrested for it but that doesn't mean their lives afterwards will be normal. This is a total fictionalisation of their story and therefore the story of the people of the Jamaican ghettoes: the politics, the unrest, the gang warfare and the death.
Marlon James was a young child in the Jamaica of 1976, sheltered in a middle class suburb. He is keen to point out that the hardly mentioned safety of these suburbs is as valid a part of Jamaica as the more widely publicised impoverished Jungle district. In interviews Marlon also highlights the huge differences between the two types of upbringing. The first time he heard a gunshot was as an adult in an American theatre (it being part of the play he was watching). The first time a child in the Jamaican ghettoes hears a gunshot, they're too young to talk.
The latter experiences were of more interest to Marlon than the mundane everyday. In writing about them he's fashioned the murder attempt on Marley into a literary pivot and has created something that isn't just un-everyday; it's brilliant.
Talking about the pivot, Bob Marley takes on an interesting status throughout the novel. 'The Singer' as a name carries the resonances of a religious icon. He's hardly physically present for more than a few moments and yet he permeates the first half of the book as much as the loyalty he unwittingly commands flavours the second half. The stars of the novel though are the story's fictional population.
Through alternating points of view chapters Marlon introduces us to these characters using distinct voices as well as distinct experiences and personalities. Among them are Nina, (a Marley groupie demonstrating that her proximity to the star is not a badge of honour in everyone's eyes), Bam Bam (a child trying out for gang recognition) Papa Lo and Josey Wales (both respected gang elders), a Rolling Stone journalist… The list goes on but each is so well written they lodge themselves firmly in our imaginations. There's even a CIA operative, monitoring prospective communist activity for the US government while distracted by a wife unable to settle.
These people speak in various forms of patois as well as more familiar English but they're all united by that night and the following backlash – and there is a backlash. Indeed, while the decades roll by with the pages, the violence knocks us back. Marlon writes magic, engendering a concern in us for people we'd switch TV news channels to avoid. Yet the shocks and twists floor us like word induced stomach punches.
We're concussed by the author's words but we still go back for more, hungrily absorbing each episode even though it will cost us a night's sleep. That live burial I read at lunchtime… Wondering how many contracts there are and on whose lives?... These aren't just 3D characters, this is a 3D book and we're in there.
Marlon wields various styles in the same way he wields words. For instance our view of the Hope Road shootings comes via Bam Bam in a flurry of blank verse, standing out in stark relief against the style of the rest of the novel. At another point we're presented with paragraphs of unpunctuated prose during a narrative which makes us wonder what's coming. When the same device crops up again later our hearts beat faster because we know.
The question is, as entertaining as it undoubtedly is, is …Seven Killings just entertainment? It's patronising for me to suggest or even hint that merely reading this multi-layered epiphany of a novel has given me insight into Jamaica's problems. However I did come away with an idea as to how complex these problems are. It also takes us on a ride that haunts and lingers.
A Man Booker 2015 winner? I hope so – that's the least that Marlon James deserves from such an epic work.
(Thank you to One World Publications for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you'd like to read more of this year's Man Booker hopefuls, try The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma or A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
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