A Brief History of Seven Killings- book review

If you want a raw, fascinating and sensational novel that shocks and confounds, then I highly recommend A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This is mostly set in Jamaica, but not of sandy beaches and smiling, charismatic superstars like Usain Bolt, but the violent slums of 1970s downtown Kingston. Amid this carnage and despair, the legendary Bob Marley spreads his songs of hope and cultural commentary to the country and the world. But even he is not immune to the violence in Jamaica when one night, seven gunmen burst into his home to try to assassinate him. The novel follows a cast of over a dozen people, including these gunmen, from before and after the murder attempt, through three decades as they deal with the repercussions of this act. The final section goes from Jamaica to the US as certain gangsters move from ghetto wars to the international cocaine and crack trade.

At first, it was challenging to really get into the book due to the language (Jamaican patois) and the constant change of characters. Each chapter is a narrative from the viewpoint of a single character, ranging from gangsters to the local CIA station chief to a writer desperately trying to get a story, as well as a woman who had a one-night stand with Bob Marley. As such, the language varies from proper English to Jamaican patois (“Police only have to see that me don’t have no shoes before he say what the bloodcloth you nasty naiggers doing round decent people,” “But then me no get far when bullet start chase after me”). It is mostly understandeable but it took a little effort to get used to entire chapters written in that way. Even though I’m from another English-speaking Caribbean country which also has a dialect, Jamaican patois is still very different.

But the more I read it, the more engrossed I became. The plot interweaves the Cold War, geopolitics and local elections, criminal underworld and the supernatural. Jamaican politics in the 1970s was a deadly affair, with the two main parties backing gangs in Kingston who each controlled their own slums and literally waged war on each other for their parties. Behind the scenes, the US administration was concerned about the Jamaican prime minister moving to socialism and linking with Fidel Castro, so it provided tacit support for the opposition and ways to undermine the government. By the time the story reaches the American parts, the political angle fades and it becomes almost solely about crime with a bit of diaspora issues included.

The book is full of cursing and coarse language, but even that is an understatement. The dialogue is raw and nothing regarding race, sex, or basic human dignity is out of bounds. At times, it got kind of visceral reading the book, so much that I could almost feel the terror and brutality, which I’ve gotten from very few books. Killing, maiming and raping all take place. Interestingly, homophobia, which Jamaica is notorious for, is also a major attribute of certain characters, who true to gangster personas, openly espouse contempt for homosexuals.

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, making James the first Jamaican author to win it, and a few other awards and made many best book of the year lists. In my view, there is absolutely no question why.

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