A Brief History of Seven Killings
The first thing to know about A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, Marlon James’ ambitious new novel chronicling several decades of recent Jamaican history, is that it features far more than seven killings. The second is that at nearly 700 pages of dense, descriptive prose, it's not exactly brief. This intense, inventive novel features nearly a dozen narrators, many speaking in a rich Jamaican patois that can be difficult to penetrate initially. And in keeping with the turbulent era it describes, it is unapologetically violent. Parents are slaughtered in front of their children, a man is stabbed to death with a letter opener, and another is burned alive in his prison cell. But this is violence with a purpose, a necessary part of an evocative and often moving book that shines a light on a culture and a country that is too often reduced to images of ganja-smoking Rastas or pristine, tourist-friendly beaches.
The story begins on December 2, 1976, as the country prepares for Smile Jamaica. The free concert featuring Bob Marley aims to promote peace between two warring political parties and their affiliated gangs in the ghettos of West Kingston, a place one character describes as “so ugly it shouldn't produce no pretty sentence, ever.” It's also the eve of a botched attempt on Marley's life, the event that James builds his novel around. But reggae fans who pick up this book thinking it’s going to be about Marley (always identified as “the Singer” rather than by name) likely will be disappointed. The failed assassination attempt may be the novel's propelling force, but James is using it to tell a much bigger story about life in Jamaica in the late 20th century. The result is a powerful look at the effects of endemic poverty and violence, and a study in how actions both large and small can have consequences that ripple out through the years.
"While A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS ends on a somewhat hopeful note, the tone is overwhelmingly bleak. But James turns his murderers and drug dealers into people we care about, and in the process shows the human side of evil."
In his third novel (his last, 2009's THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN, about a slave rebellion on a Jamaican sugar plantation, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award), James moves with ease through a swath of recent Caribbean and American history, tracing a line from the teeming metropolis of Kingston in the mid-1970s to the crack-ridden streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn in the '80s, and then back to Jamaica in the '90s. Each narrator is compelling enough to deserve his own novel, and it’s a testament to James' talent as a writer that he is able to inhabit each of these wildly different voices with equal skill. This allows each to tell his own story, so that the same events are seen from different perspectives.
The cast includes gangland bosses, the ghost of a murdered politician, and one of the Singer's former lovers. There's also a cynical CIA operative and an ambitious journalist from Rolling Stone, an outsider trying to wrap his head around a story he can’t quite understand. Most interesting is Josey Wales, a ruthless, pragmatic gang enforcer turned drug kingpin who wants “something more than this party business.” Local politics doesn't interest Wales, who has ambitions beyond ruling the ghettos of West Kingston. “You have people living in the ghetto who can only see within it. From me was a young boy all I could see was outside it…people with no plan wait and see. People with a plan see and wait for the right time.” Wales aligns himself with the Medellín cartel and plays a key role in introducing crack to the U.S. in the '80s, the setting for much of the book's final two sections.
“The living, they never listen,” observes the ghost of Sir Arthur Jennings, as one of the men who attacked the Singer is strung up by a mob of vengeful Rastafari. Those are words that seem increasingly true as the story moves further from the night of the attempted murder. Virtually every character --- from Kim Burgess, the troubled woman doing all she can to leave Jamaica behind, to Alex Pierce, the journalist who is closer to his story than he realizes --- is operating under the mistaken belief that they can outrun their past. It's an illusion that they are able to sustain right up until the moment when the past shows up at their doorstep, often wielding a gun.
While A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS ends on a somewhat hopeful note, the tone is overwhelmingly bleak. But James turns his murderers and drug dealers into people we care about, and in the process shows the human side of evil. The subject matter may not be pretty, but this is a visceral, challenging novel that draws you in and refuses to let go.
Reviewed by Megan Elliott on November 14, 2014