A Brief History of Seven Killings
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Although I have connections with Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings feels a millions miles away from almost everything I have ever known or experienced. For the most part, the action, the settings and much of the language are all quite alien to me. Still, I somehow found the book extraordinarily compelling.
The story is hard to grasp. It emerges through a series of monologues and confrontations spanning several decades, bringing together a cast of 76 characters in a dysfunctional collective. We encounter a damning range of prejudices, corrosive desires, hostile temperaments and fatal incidents. Some characters confess their crimes, others boast about them. All of them have something unpleasant to reveal.
The Man Booker prize-winning novel, 2015
On almost every page there are references to guns, drugs and hardcore sex. Lots of varieties of all of these. So much hatred, anger and brutality. A Guardian reviewer has suggested that some of the violence is necessarily awful, and some of it is almost comic and enjoyable. I’m not sure about that. James describes A Brief History as a “male heavy” story, with much brutality and degradation. “A story to a huge extent of men doing bad things to each other”. And the effects of the individual actions are widespread: James adds: “the blowback, the fallback, the fallout always hits other people”.
Sometimes hapless individuals lose their lives just for looking at a man with a gun in the wrong way. And about those killings. Seven, you say? This is a considerable underestimate. It feels more like seven hundred. And the book is far from being a brief history. It’s 686 pages of very long histories, over-lapping, being set aside and then being brought back again. But I'm not complaining, really!
James has been likened to Tarantino and he acknowledges being hugely inspired by cinema. He presents us with an endless series of vicious beatings and the frequent spraying of bullets. The blood splatters up from the page. Add to this the debauchery and the incessant sexual insults exchanged between the characters and we have the makings of a rough, dirty, demeaning screenplay that flashes ghetto life in front of us and rarely lets us look away.
Marlon James, photo via The Telegraph
The character names are quite special. Some of them are named after real life people, but my favourite is Josey Wales – the eponymous agent of vengeance in the Clint Eastwood’s classic film. We also get to know Shotta Sheriff, Weeper and Dorcas. As well as the gangland mobsters, there are musicians, journalists and CIA agents. The CIA is messing in the affairs of Jamaica, not prepared to leave this to the Jamaican politicians of the time. And then we have The Singer, Bob Marley, though this character is off-stage throughout.
Erupting out of the political / social / economic turmoil in the seventies, the highlight of the story is the attempted assassination of The Singer. There is little explanation why this took place, other than a suggestion that Marley had links with the PNP (People’s National Party). But even as an expression of political power, the shooting of an international reggae star seems quite senseless.
Strangely, it is possible to miss this key scene, even if you are concentrating really hard on a first read. I had to go back to the section on 1976 and track it down. Why so hard ? Perhaps because this passage fits in so naturally with all the rest of the violence throughout the narrative. If you want another clue, look out for a chapter that appears entirely in street verse. And read it aloud. This chapter, amongst many, has to be read out loud to sink in.
After the shootout, we are taken into the gangland suburbs of New York, where we witness even more abominable events. The shockwaves from the main action are experienced way beyond Jamaica. The obsession with killing and brutality continues, epitomised by a horrendous, dead-of-night execution in prison. But by this point, the story has almost lost its ability to shock.
What remains right up until the end of the novel is James’s tireless and “geekish fascination with language” (his words). His manipulation of language is superb. This stands out in his code switching between so many characters and everything they bring along in their onslaught upon the reader.
The author on prize night. Photo via Associated Press
So, a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize ? I’m not sure, though I’m not going to argue too much with the judges’ choice. James, the first ever Jamaican winner of the prize, has described the experience as “kind of surreal”.
James acknowledges he is not an easy novelist to read. He is an academic who teaches creative writing and likes to challenge both his students and his readers. That seems reasonable. Not all books are meant to be a breeze.
I still can’t quite connect with the story. This is an ugly and unconventional pageant of events and characters who have found themselves in awful situations and are unable to live better lives. Merely surviving in the ghetto does not really seem like much of a success. Still, the book does not rely on characters being successful, or wholesome, or happy. Just that some of them die and others survive. The survivors can live to fight and inject and screw another day.
My overall impression is that this is a book that has been brilliantly crafted, but to adapt a line from Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons, the story screams LIFE NOT WELL SPENT.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016