Well, the Booker Prize winner announcement is tonight, and as I’m only halfway through my fourth book off the shortlist unfortunately I’ve failed my challenge (to read the lot before the winner is announced) yet again! Ah well, one year I’ll manage it…
As mentioned, I’m only halfway through this one but I thought I’d get a few thoughts up on the blog ahead of the announcement tonight anyway. I’ll come back and update once I’ve finished it if I have anything substantial to add!
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
On 3 December 1976, just weeks before the general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica concert to ease political tensions, seven men from West Kingston stormed his house with machine guns. Marley survived and went on to perform at the free concert. But the next day he left the country and didn’t return for two years.
Inspired by this near-mythic event, A Brief History of Seven Killings takes the form of an imagined oral biography, told by ghosts, witnesses, killers, members of parliament, drug dealers, conmen, beauty queens, FBI and CIA agents, reporters, journalists, and even Keith Richards’ drug dealer. The story traverses strange landscapes and shady characters, as motivations are examined – and questions asked.
Let me start by saying that this is an excellent, bold and challenging book, but “brief” it ain’t! at 600 pages of very small font, it’s taking me some time to get through. It’s not an easy or a quick read: many chapters are written in Jamaican vernacular (not quite full patois, but enough to make it a challenge to read in some places), and it’s all written in a very immediate, almost breathless style with a dizzying number of characters, all with their own backgrounds and motivations, introduced throughout. I was grateful for the character lists included at the start of the book, and frequently checked back to remind myself who was who!
The events of the novel – the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (only referred to in text as The Singer) – are exhaustively detailed from multiple perspectives. The book is divided into five sections of 100+ pages each, and each covers only a single day: the first two cover the day before the shooting and the day of the event itself; the third section is set two years later, after Marley’s return to Jamaica; and the final two take place 6 and 12 years after that, respectively (but I haven’t got to those bits yet!).
Each section is written in short chapters, each from the perspective of a different character – ranging from gang leaders and members, CIA operatives, politicians, journalists and groupies, and at least one character narrating from beyond the grave. This is a real strength of James’ writing: each character has a distinct voice. The character narrating is helpfully listed at the start of each chapter, but after a while you don’t really need that: it’s easy enough to tell from their voices who is speaking, which is something I think is very difficult for a writer to pull off.
The multi-viewpoint narrative makes it a compelling read: each character knows something of what is going on, but no one has the full picture. Exploring each viewpoint gives a full sense of the wider events surrounding Marley and the political situation of the time.
I didn’t really know much about Bob Marley, or the Jamaican political scene of the 1970s, so I’m enjoying the book for the insight that it’s giving me. I did Google the shooting attempt just before I started reading this book, and I’m glad I did as it’s given me a little background to go on. I think I’d find this book a lot harder to follow if I didn’t have that basic background, as many events, people, political parties etc. are only referred to obliquely, so it’s useful to have at least a vague idea going in of what actually happened at the time.
That’s not a criticism of the book though: I actually really respect a writer who doesn’t feel the need to spoon-feed readers with every detail. This is the kind of book that demands your attention and concentration, and I think it’s all the stronger for that.
I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint-hearted: it is incredibly violent, at times going into stomach-churning detail. However, even when describing the precise moment a bullet exits a man’s eye socket, James’ writing is flawless: lyrical without being sentimental.
With the caveat that I haven’t even nearly finished it yet, and still have two others to read from the shortlist, I am hugely impressed by this book, and would not be at all surprised to see it scoop the prize tonight. In fact I hope it does: I think it’s the best I’ve read so far from the shortlist.