Monday, April 6, 2015
Review: "A Brief History of Seven Killings" by Marlon James
I consider myself to be a lucky reader, because every few years I come across a book that is as great and fantastic as Marlon James’ instant masterpiece A Brief History of Seven Killings. There are many things I can compare it to. Its multiple narrators, air of unsolvable mystery and appalling accounts of violence remind me of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, Bolano’s final one-two punch. Its brilliant use of Jamaican slang and vernacular are very reminiscent of the novels of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. And its violent sense of revisionist history is as good as the three books in James Ellroy’s underrated Underworld USA trilogy. But like all those books, the story James tells and the way he tells it is completely original, done with great care and inventiveness that never ceased to amaze me. It is a difficult book for sure, one that takes time and effort to fully immerse yourself in the violent world of West Kingston, Jamaica, a world that will have many the ill-informed college student thinking twice about displaying that Bob Marley poster on their dorm room wall. Its use of language also makes it difficult, it taking about 100 or so pages of its near 700 page length to get a hang for it. But once you do, it is pure literary bliss, telling a tragic story of violence, retribution, the blood-stained hands of the past and the cruel way fate will always play a part in people’s lives. The story centers on the assassination attempt of Jamaica’s favorite son, Bob Marley, in late 1976 as he is organizing a peace concert to try and end the violence in his native country. In real life, those gunmen are never found, but in James’ story, we follow them for the next twenty years as their stories intertwine, identities change, and lots and lots of blood is shed. As I mentioned the book uses many narrators, from Bam-Bam, a young boy whose life is surrounded by violence, from the gruesome death of his parents, his part in the assassination attempt, and his tragic, horrifying end and Sir Arthur George Jennings, a man who was pushed to his death, now a ghost forced to witness his killers succeed and murder more people. The two main threads involve the battle for leadership in the Eight Lanes gang between the violent but level-headed Papa Lo to the psychopathic social climber Josey Wales, the winner not only being promised power in the gang but political influence as well. The other in involves a woman named Nina Burgess, the heart of this relentless novel, who sees the shooting of Marley firsthand, and spends the next twenty years running for her life. As I keep saying, the violence in this book is as potent as anything I have come across, just as upsetting as the descriptions of rape and murder in the fourth section of 2666, with bullet wounds, dismemberment and rape being described vividly, creating a sense of omniscient brutality not only in the actions but in James’ language as well. But despite all the death, this book never felt anything less than bursting with life and brilliance, offering the kind of reading experience that is unrivaled and much appreciated, and something I won’t ever forget.