A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I’ve been fairly slow to make progress in our own winter scavenger hunt reading challenge (read about that and join us here). Part of the blame for that is the book I chose for Item #6 (read a book with a number in the title). I chose Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. To be fair, I started this book in November (prior to the start of our challenge) but only read 1-2 chapters and then dropped it while I read a few other books. I just didn’t have it in me to read it then. I picked it back up in early December for the challenge. Was it worth it? Here’s what I thought…
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
First Published: 2015
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by: Jen
Find it/buy it here: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Wow, where do I start with this book? This book was a challenging read to say the least. At times I hated it and at other times I loved it but I turned the last page feeling grateful for having had the opportunity to experience what is truly an awe-inspiring book. It was unlike anything I’ve ever read and there is no question in my mind that it deserved to win the Man Booker award last year.
A Brief History is broken into 5 major sections spanning over 30 years. It is a novel about an unstable and terrifyingly dangerous time in Jamaican history. Chapters are told from the perspective of dozens of characters including gang members, CIA operatives, a Rolling Stone Journalist, an unemployed Jamaican woman, gang bosses, and even a ghost who interjects occasionally with reflections on death. James uses stream-of-consciousness to piece together the history of that time through the eyes of multiple narrators. The novel begins in 1976, the day before Bob Marley, his wife, and manager were shot in the singer’s home. The three survived the attack and James’ novel speculates on the events that lead up to the attempted murder and the aftermath. Through these events James takes us deep into the heart of the Jamaican ghettos in Kingston and immerses us in a world of gang violence, political maneuvering and corruption, and drugs.
So why was it so challenging for me to read? First off, it’s a long book at close to 700 pages and it begins with a 4-page, and much needed, “cast of characters.” I had to refer back to this list at least a dozen times in the first quarter of the book. So before you even crack open the narrative, you can tell it will be a complex book. The sheer number of characters is dizzying especially since many of them have gang names that are hard to keep straight in your head –like Heckle, Bam-Bam, Funky Chicken, Leggo Beast, Funnyboy, Buntin-Banton, Dishrag, and so on.
Second, the slang makes it hard to read. As I mentioned earlier, James uses stream of conscious style throughout and since so many of the characters are gang members, they use slang that is initially hard to understand. As the novel progresses, you eventually get the hang of it and toward the end of the book I found myself repeating some of the phrases. Take this exchange between Nina Burgess (a woman who is trying to leave Jamaica for the U.S.) and the police.
Wee willie – cho r’asscloth.
Broke a heel. And the damn shoes was not cheap. Shit r’ass –
-Then hi, a way dis den ‘pin we? Coolie duppy?
-It h’are the pretty-heat coolie duppy h’eye h’ever see.
This is the typical dialogue you get for a majority of the book. As I mentioned above, I found myself saying some of the insults until I looked them up and saw a comment that said something along the lines of “never say these words to a real Jamaican or you could end up dead.” Perhaps this is why so many people died in the book. Which brings me to my final point about why this was a challenging book for me — the violence.
The title of the book will give you a clue that this book isn’t all puppies and roses, but the extent of the violence in all its forms (sexual, physical, and emotional) was at times very challenging to read. A LOT of people die in this book and often in very gruesome ways. One of the main characters is a psychopath who kills or sends others to kill for him at the smallest provocation.
So, why the 4 stars? The book is truly stunning and highly ambitious – and the author is successful in what he sets out to achieve. It’s probably unlike anything else you will ever read and it is eye-opening in a terrifying way. James really immerses you in both the Jamaican ghetto and Jamaican politics in the late 1970s. He makes you live and breath this unstable and violent time. The novel is amazingly complex and highlights corruption and complicated relationships between gang leaders, government officials, and CIA operatives that existed at the time of this story. A Brief History of Seven Killings is based, in part, on real-life events. The Shower Posse ruled Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s and spread their influence to the US in the 1980s through drug trafficking – controlling much of the crack cocaine supply in New York and Miami (this is covered in the later half of the book). Furthermore, the political rivalry was very much a fact in Jamaica in the 1970s along with the use of gangs by politicians for their own political gain.
I have a hard time with violence in books and this was probably one of the most violent books I’ve ever read. But, the violence and obscenity serves a purpose. Interestingly, as awful as many of the narrators are, they are that way because of circumstances that existed before they were born and that are reinforced by sociopolitical and economic factors. At times you find yourself horrified by a sensation of empathy for certain characters. One minute you are rooting for them and the next minute they are committing horrendous acts. Some of the dialogue is even quite funny and as the reader you find yourself questioning what is wrong with you since you are laughing at some awful things.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone for the points I mentioned earlier. If you are very sensitive to things like violence, graphic sexual descriptions, and obscene language you will have a hard time with the book. But, if you can tolerate those things then A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fascinating and difficult read that will stay with you for a long time.
Book Worm reviewed this book last year for our Man Booker predictions. You can read her review here.
Want to try it for yourself? You can purchase your copy here: A Brief History of Seven Killings
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