I can understand why the critics loved this sprawling epic of a book. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times captures its essence when he wrote “It’s like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner.” Succinctly put (although James himself is apparently tired of the Tarantino comparisons)!
With its diversity of voices, stories, opinions and politics, Marlon James uses potent language and dialogue to superb effect in telling his tale of Jamaica between 1976 and 1991 centred around gangland supremacy battles – and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and its aftermath in particular.
With the city of Kingston divided between its rival drug gangs, where the dons ruled the roost and each gang had its political affiliation, tension is palpable, corruption rife and violence the norm. And with the elections looming and the government flirting heavily with socialism, there’s more than a passing international interest in the Caribbean island.
But A Brief History of Seven Killings is no linear narrative. Divided into five parts, multiple narrators plunge us into the maelstrom. Papa Lo may be the don of Copenhagen City, but it’s his second-in-command, Josey Wales, who is talking to the CIA, Cuban exiles and planning the demise behind the scenes of ‘The Singer’ (Marley is never mentioned by name). The Singer, it seems, has the ‘wrong’ political affiliations required for the interests of the US.
Barry Diflorio, CIA station chief to Jamaica, is no stranger to covert actions, but rogue agents and even field officers ostensibly under Diflorio are working to different agendas. The support of Wales and his rise to don in Copenhagen City is not policy. Papa Lo is ageing, moderate (relatively) and a supporter of the JLP (Jamaican Labor Party – ironically conservative in their policies). As long as there’s no threat to his drug cartel, Papa Lo, a close friend of The Singer, is no major threat to the status quo. Yet weapons are readily supplied and plans made.
The assassination attempt failed. But A Brief History of Seven Killings uses it as its centrepiece and, in spanning three decades, explores its aftermath and, by doing so, tells the story of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. The perpetrators, the assassins, the (accidental) witnesses, the victims, bystanders, even a dead politician – all are given voice in this epic saga of 700 pages.
In spite of its title, Marlon James is in no hurry – thus cannon-fodder gang members such as Bam Bam and Leggo Beast are given their voice, a heavy vernacular of street patois and drug frenzy that counterpoints the considered Papa Lo and ruthless Josey Wales (the attack on Marley’s home is a breathless, coke-fuelled patois from Bam Bam’s perspective). They’re balanced by the likes of Nina Burgess (sadly the only female character of any substance), a one-night stand of the Singer of long ago along with the musings of local dead politician, Sir Arthur George Jennings. Such a technique, along with the ghost-like presence of Marley throughout, provides an insight into the complexities of the times. Add outsiders such as Diflorio or Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce and the result is a chaotic, opinionated world of vengeance, deceit and plain fear.
With the expansion of the Jamaican drugs lords into New York and Miami in the 80s, inevitably A Brief History of Seven Killings shifts its focus in the last quarter of the book. Sadly, as a result, the book loses some of its scope and powerful commentary. Whilst Eubie is one of the most charismatic of all the characters, Josey Wales’ expansion in the Bronx turns to all-too-familiar gangsta territory.
My one main criticism of A Brief History of Seven Killings is its uneven pacing, resulting in a flawed masterpiece. Somewhere in the middle, the pace flags and it became seriously bogged down in its own cleverness and boldness. Like Tarantino’s films, the bombardment of violence can sometimes become too much. Short, staccato chapters are replaced by long, rambling opinions and positioning. But, thankfully, the last section picks up the pace and the narrative fairly zips along as loose ends are tied together.
Whilst fiction, A Brief History of Seven Killings is built around a few actual events, places and people (with names changed). Tivoli Gardens in Kingston becomes Copenhagen City, Papa Lo and Josey Wales are based on real dons and more. And whilst not crucial to the understanding of the narrative, there are times when a more in-depth knowledge of Jamaica and its politics of the time would have helped. (The inverse of that is that A Brief History of Seven Killings provides insight into a subject I personally knew nothing about).
Marlon James became the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize, picking up the prize in 2015 at the expense of another superb, critically acclaimed novel, Hanya Yanaghara’s A Little Life. Personally, my preference would be for the American novel – but only just.