Booker Prize 2015 winner, Marlon James, annihilates the top-ranking competition with his third novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, and with a sharp and gritty storyline all that’s left for us to do is add our own blood gushing review to the swathes of critical praise it’s already picked up. However, the reality is that such is the quality of the novel that we can’t help but feel inadequate reviewing it, like our attemp to talk up the book pales in comparison to the vicious brilliance of its perfectly constructed prose.
Starting out with inadequate comparisons; it combines the grim reality and linguistic style of Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting, the scale and complexity of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the brutal violence and intricate relationships of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the sweeping characterisation of Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. If you wanted to throw some movie references into the mix you could include everything from City Of God and Goodfellas to American Psycho, Scarface and Pulp Fiction, but you’d still be off the mark by a fair way.
The fact of the matter is that while there are cursory comparisons on a number of fronts, A Brief History Of Seven Killings stands out with unrelenting intention as something new and cutting that challenges your understanding of morality, humanity, society and world politics. If that isn’t enough, it also provides a raw insight into Jamaica, the sub-culture groups that inhabit the rock and the music that poured out of it during the 70s and early 80s.
Except, the truth is that there’s no way for us to know how much is accurate portrayal and how much is creative license, because the subject matter is so incredibly otherworldly and out of the reaches of the majority of its readers’ comprehension, including us. Reading the book, we were struck by how little we could say, “that’s probably the way that it was”, because how would we actually know. Unless you grew up in one of Kingston’s slums in the 1960s, the subject matter is way out of your grasp and even then you’ll probably have some question for Marlon James.
For the rest of us, it’s a pervert’s voyeuristic blood splattered, batty-side peep hole into a situation that we can never truly understand and struggle to analyse, and while it opens our eyes a little, it’s difficult to say what to. However, that’s not really the point, so don’t worry too much about your inevitable naivety in such matters, or the search for specific parables in the heavenly spent novel, because the real target is that your eyes will be just a little wider once you read it and that will be good enough in itself.
Released on hardback, audiobook and digital download in October 2014, before making its way to paperback on the 4th June 2015, A Brief History Of Seven Killings tells the story of crime, music and the aftermath of abject poverty and political vicissitudes in Jamaica, along with its subsequent reach into North America in the decades that follow. It begins on Jam rock, creeping into the lives of key players in a convoluted conspiracy that sees the CIA influencing political sway away from the Cuban red tide, the Jamaican political order wrestling for control and the gangland drug lords doing the same for stomping rights.
At the heart of it all is an attempted assassination on Bob Marley, who is referred to throughout the book as “The Singer”, who acts as one of the key pivot points for the story and the people that feature in it’s massive, shadowy confines. It includes lengthy, often bloody chunks of the characters lives, giving us a gun-totting warts-and-all view of crime, punishment and retribution in Jamaica and New York, along with the innocent bystanders that get drawn into its murky abyss.
It’s a brutal read, so if you’re verging anywhere near the faint of heart side of the reading spectrum then this will be all the more a shocking and disturbing read than for the hardier book club page pushers out there. The title vastly undersells the reality of the book as it is neither brief, nor does it feature so paltry a killing tally as seven. However, if you can steel yourself to make it through to the bitter and twisted end then you’ll have a lot to think on, if not fully comprehend.
Marlon James, A Brief History Of Seven Killings review: 5/5