Have you ever been in a passionate, slightly dangerous relationship that you kind of want to leave but in which you can’t help but stay? And at the end, when you finally make it out, you’re just exhausted but glad to be alive? That’s what it was like reading Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings.James made waves with the novel in the literary world late last year as the first Jamaican to win the coveted Man Booker Prize.
The novel is not so much a brief history of seven killings as it is a detailed account of very many killings leading up to and following the real-life attempted murder of reggae icon Bob Marley. It’s a story about drug wars and the threat of communism; about politics and desperation; about the divide between rich and poor. A Brief History of Seven Killings is tragic and very surprising, slightly uncomfortable and quite graphic but also hilarious in places.
Set in 1960s Jamaica and spanning decades in and outside the island, this sometimes confusing but brilliantly written tale follows a cast of characters who run the Jamaican ghetto and the people whose lives their violence touches. It explains James’ theory of the plot behind the Marley assassination and what happened to those involved and affected after the event. Marley – who is only ever referred to as The Singer – barely makes an appearance in the book, but the attempt on his life has a butterfly effect on this motley crew of wayward people.
James is an exceptional writer but the narrative was sometimes hard to follow. There are stories within stories that create a compelling tale but can be challenging to piece all together – although it’s worth the effort. He helpfully provides a three-page list of characters at the beginning which I initially ignored but then had to refer to several times, just to figure out who was where. James also makes heavy use of stream of consciousness in very effective ways – there’s no better way to get inside the mind of a coked-up drug addict who has only just realized he is about to be killed – but this can sometimes be maddening.
What I loved about this A Brief History of Seven Killings though, was the author’s willingness to go to some very uncomfortable places and to practically compel you to go along for the ride. If this book were a film, there would be scenes where I’d have to look away. There were pages I didn’t want to turn and sentences I didn’t want to finish because I just didn’t want to know what happened next. But also I really wanted to know what happened next!
From page one, I became deeply invested in the characters and completely immersed in their narratives. But perhaps a little too much. As eager as I was to know how things turned out, near the end I just wanted to leave all the violence, loss and trauma behind and watch an animated movie for kids. I wanted to get out of this world and go back to my life where people weren’t manipulating, threatening, stalking, desperate, drugged-out or on a murderous rampage.
But it was worth it to experience the absolute pleasure of reading something that felt refreshingly new. I’d never experienced anything quite like James’ storytelling. It was passionate, and slightly dangerous, and I kind of wanted to leave A Brief History of Seven Killings but I couldn’t help but stay ‘til the end. I left it exhausted but man, did I enjoy the ride.
Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings is available to buy online here.