Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

by Stephen Tall on December 13, 2016

brief-historyA Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

This is the eight book plucked from my #40booksby40 list. And I’ll get straight to it: there are books I admire more than I enjoy, and this is definitely one of them.

I understand why it won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. The story is told in first-person by more than 75 different characters, each with their own, distinctive, vibrant voice. Its scope is ambitious, spanning three decades and the inter-relationship of Jamaican domestic and US foreign politics. It will, I imagine, make for a brilliant HBO series (its rights have been snapped up).

With all that going for it, what are my problems with the novel?

First, it’s over-long. There are three-and-a-half compelling characters: gangster Josey Wales, journalist Alex Pierce, and groupie-turned-survivor-chameleon Nina Burgess (/ Kim Clarke / Dorcas Palmer / Millicent Segree); the half is tortured gay coke-head, Weeper. When the focus is on them the story comes alive. When it’s not, the story drags, especially in the ponderous first two-thirds.

Secondly, it’s really, really hard work. Not just wading through the vast tracts of extraneous interior monologuing; not just the Jamaican patois; but mostly understanding the core of the story as the bitter power struggle between Jamaica’s two dominant parties, the JLP and PNP (exemplified by the attempted assassination of Bob Marley which is both central, and curiously irrelevant, to the novel).

I don’t want to be too down on it, though. There is some superb writing: Bam-Bam being buried alive is told excruciatingly well. There is also some sharp, dry wit — such as Josey Wales’ savvy playing-to-type when speaking to his FBI contacts, remembering ‘to say at least one no problem, mon … just so he leave thinking he find the right man’. And the pace definitely picks up towards the end.

But, boy, do you have to bumbaclot commit.

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