Posted on January 22, 2016
3. ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James
Oh boy, I don’t even know how to begin reviewing this book. I mean, it’s not even a book, it’s a tour de force. I feel like I’ve been sucked into the upper atmosphere by a tornado and then dropped into a tidal wave, and now I’m standing up, brushing off my jeans and saying, “Hmmm, nine out of ten, completely blew my mind but I am a little confused.”
Seven Killings won the Man Booker prize in 2015, so it was top of my to-read list as soon as I unwrapped it on Christmas Day. This novel centres around an event in 1976, when seven gunmen stormed Bob Marley’s house in Jamaica and attempted to kill the famous musician. They failed, but they managed to escape. The first half of Seven Killings focuses on the lead-up to the event, and the second half examines the fallout and what happened to each of the gunmen in the years afterwards.
One of the most astonishing things about this novel is the number of different voices there are. Usually as I read I make a list of POV (point of view) characters, but when I got to about 10 characters I realised that I should probably give up. In all there are 75 characters, and loads of them get to talk, first person, at some point. Of course, this demonstrates that James’ versatility is one of his most impressive talents: he gives voices to American CIA agents, disillusioned Rolling Stone writers, desperate fans and murderous thugs. Men and women, rich and poor, determined and conflicted, James gets under the skin of them all and does it magnificently.
My only criticism is my own ignorance. Seriously, reading this I truly felt how puny my brain is in the face of James’ multi-layered creation. For a while, for quite a lot of the book actually, I felt like I didn’t really know what was going on. First, many of the characters speak in Jamaican dialect and, having no knowledge of that whatsoever, I found it took a while for me to get used to it. But even when the characters were speaking in language I could 100% understand, sometimes they were talking about such complicated and in-depth political and social machinations that I was equally clueless. However, I don’t feel that this is a criticism of James’ writing – God knows he shouldn’t simplify a complex human subject just to pander to the likes of me – but it did sometimes hinder my enjoyment . Again, tornado and tidal wave: awesome, but there’s no way I can fully comprehend it.
Race plays a big role in this novel. White characters from America come over to Jamaica to stick their fingers into the country’s politics and try to change it for their own gain. In the second half of the book there is a reversal and many of the Jamaican gang members go over to America and start making waves there. Just as powerful is the theme of gangs vs. police. There is a lot of police brutality in Seven Killings and, it won’t surprise you to learn, that there are way more than just seven killings. This book is dirty, grimy and no-holds-barred VIOLENT. James writes unflinchingly about rape and murder and torture and sexual violence; in one of the opening chapters someone is forced to give a gang member a blow job and then has his brains blown out. This all adds up to create a powerful atmosphere of danger and fear (so you totally get why people are afraid to take on the gangs), and as you read you get a strong sense that nobody is going to make it out alive.
This is an amazing book and I feel utterly in awe of it. I feel like I must put it very carefully on my bookshelf and hope that, one day, when I read it again (and it does bear reading again, and again, and again) I will be able to understand a fraction more of the work James has managed to do here.
“Me would take a bullet for the Singer. But gentlemen, me can only take one.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.