A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Marlon James’ ironically titled A Brief History of Seven Killings is, at 686 pages, not brief by any kind of math. It drops the reader into Jamaica’s criminal spaces for a scales off can you handle the truth experience of the Caribbean country’s underbelly.
The immersive nature of the novel – plus the fact that it jumps around in time, between its multitude upon multitude of characters, vivid action to quiet contemplation, shocking violence to quiet beauty, straight up reportage to dreamlike effect… forever keeping the reader off guard – can have a disorienting effect. When it was intense it was powerfully so, but, if I’m being honest, there are times when I felt like I was slogging through seaweed. But it is overall an impressive literary feat and I completely understand how it copped the Man Booker prize and many other major literary prizes.
The story has as its inciting incident the Bob Marley inspired Singer working to bring the warring political and by extension warring ghetto factions to a place of peace. The peace concert in the book is inspired by the actual peace concert which resulted in the attempt on Marley’s life. There is a split in intention in one of the major factions and it takes a huge toll on lives both directly and tangentially connected to the gang culture. The aftershocks ripple out from the core, Jamaica, to America as the last don standing rises and rises, and inevitably (spoiler alert) falls.
Gang culture is defined broadly here, implicating the political parties in the actions of the illegal gangs; and as the book centres the criminal elements of that culture, we see them in a more nuanced way, as men (largely men) grappling with their role, their humanity, and their community in interesting ways.
For me, Papa Lo, one of the dons, is one of the more interesting and empathetic characters as is Nina Burgess, an uptown woman unemployed and desperate for escape. Characters like the charismatic Josey Wales were harder to stomach but harder still to look away from. Weeper, an enforcer, challenges certain sexual stereotypes and is interesting in that regard. There is a white US reporter guy (Alex Pierce) – you might find yourself rooting for his survival (during one particularly intense scene in his hotel room for instance), though he is more his role, the writer, than a person of interest beyond that role. A number of the other characters blur for me –not all (e.g. poor doomed Bam Bam, who is introduced in to the story as a child witness to his parents’ death and promptly finds another type of family in his bid to survive). Some characters I just don’t care about – like the CIA guy. I’ll admit that just keeping up with the sheer number of people was one of my challenges reading this book, how often I had to check back to the extensive character listing at the front to see who is who again. I’m not usually a fan of character lists but I have to admit this one was absolutely essential for getting me through this marathon of a book. Though it should be pointed out that the character listing is deceptive as well, as people move and take on new identities and are presented to us as those new identities, leaving us to guess at this newness or reinvention. As I’ve hinted, the reader has to do some work reading this book.
My early – and in retrospect too easy – interpretation of this book was that it was fast-paced, non-linear, vastly populated, and VIOLENT like a Tarantino film. But, really, it is its own thing with too much grit and guts on both the physical and emotional level for this easy comparison. There are times when the power of the imagery slams in to all of your senses at once and leaves you gasping for breath. Certain scenes of the Don (pick a don) sharing out ghetto discipline or vengeance come to mind. The book is intense as well in the way it captures ghetto desperation: seeing the psychology of a mugging from a mugger’s side, witnessing the rape of a man through his son’s eyes, the psychosis of addiction, the sociopathy of an enforcer, the inescapability of it all.
Also, this is going to sound weird but, Marlon James writes death beautifully – one of the most beautifully rendered being the death of the Singer. The violence and the sex are both very graphic in this book, know that going in. But the writing is beautiful and sometimes quite insightful. One character, Tristan Philips’ monologue about Jamaica, and the nature of hope and despair are deeply moving – e.g. the fatalism in “People like me, our life write out before we, without asking we permission”. (p. 568)
The inclusion of the CIA and the reminder that they interfered in Caribbean and South American internal politics – revealed mostly in interaction between operatives was timely (if not, for me, particularly interesting reading), given the US outrage over possible interference in their most recent elections.
So what’s my overall impression? I liked it. I expected to love it going in, given how many people had recommended it to me and given that I really liked James’ The Book of Night Women…but… I liked it. It feels over long (more like 800 pages than 686), confusing at times, and there were times when I just didn’t care. But it is a vibrant, vital, visceral book – not just a crime drama but an uneasy human drama, that puts you inside the skin of a diseased body. As such, it’s not just powerful storytelling but a story telling us something about our societies to which we need to listen – though fucked if we know what to do with all this knowing (like climate change the violence feels insurmountable, though there is some relief at the end for at least one of our characters).
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