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A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

April 5, 2016


The novel opens with an index of seventy-six characters. It is sprawling, sometimes disorienting, with shifting points of view, a plot that jumps through time over 30 years. It is laced with graphic, unsettling violence and riveting suspense. It is at times hard to follow, difficult to keep track of plot tendrils and characters who wander in and out. It is difficult to parse the dialect of the dialogue, to understand the Jamaican slang. It is a book that sometimes feels rough, like a fight. It leaves a trail of devastation, of broken, beaten, murdered, that in the end is more of a spectacular impression than a coherent narrative. Like an epic, fragmented dream that somehow captures an entire swath of history with a set of manic brush strokes.

The central event of A Brief History of Seven Killings is the real-world assassination attempt on Bob Marley, who is named only as The Singer. On December 3, 1976, two days before Marley was to perform a massive, free concert in Jamaica to help ease political tensions leading up to the national election, seven gunmen stormed his mansion with machine guns. They injured him, his wife and several others. James imagines the echoes of that assassination attempt through the next three decades.

In reality, the assassination attempt remains unsolved. The perpetrators were never brought to justice for the crime. But in this story, none of them get off easy. James invests in a massive cast, develops dozens into fully formed, tangible characters—musicians, CIA agents, thugs, gangsters, prostitutes, reporters, dealers and addicts—and propels them through scenes with a cinematic eye for detail. It is a tapestry woven of sex, drugs, geopolitics, music, all manner of crime and violence, lifted from the contrivances of pulp by the author’s literary prowess. We spend most of our time in the underbelly of Jamaica and New York, on street corners and in hotel rooms, crack dens and back bedrooms.

In one interview, A Brief History was compared to a Quentin Tarantino movie. The comparison is apt, though there’s too much story here for a single film. I’d expect it to make a better miniseries (suspicion confirmed—HBO has optioned the book for just that). As for other literary comparisons, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 comes to mind, though this book is more focused in its theme of fate, retribution and, one might say, karma. It’s a book that requires so much of the reader that it’s not an easy recommend. But it has such ambition and delivers on almost every level that it’s very easy to praise.

A Brief History of Seven Killings received the Man Booker Prize and the American Book Award.

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