A Brief History of Seven Killings begins in the Jamaican ghettos of 1976, and ends all the way in New York in the 1990’s. It’s an incredible journey of many characters that tells the tale of Jamaican hardships.
At the core of the book is “The Singer”, the books interpretation of Bob Marley. James never mentions Marley by name in the book, because although this story is based on real historical events, it also serves as a fictional telling of the events that surrounded his attempted assassination – including the aftermath.
Even though The Singer‘s assassination is the most notable subject matter in the story, James touches on so much more than just Marley’s shooting. Throughout the book we get to experience CIA agents taking up residence on the island, Cubans pushing their communist agenda in Jamaica and the corruption of two opposing Jamaican parties the PNP (People’s National Party) and the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party). It’s The Singer’s peace concert — which aims to celebrate a peace treaty for the warring political parties and their reigning gangsters — that brings seven shooters into The Singer’s home with the intent to murder him. The book really starts to get more depth after the shooting occurs as we get a look into how this one act of violence impacts so many lives.
There’s no main character in A Brief History of Seven Killings, so bouncing around between characters may get tiresome for readers in the early stages. If that’s not daunting enough then some of the writing is so dense that it may leave you digesting it for days on end before continuing. It’s a novel that will require effort from the reader, particularly in the beginning and middle stages. It’s a book that requires an open mind from its reader to enjoy it. The book breaks a number of literary rules, so it’s important to look at it more as a work of art than judge its mechanics.
This book in film form would be a Quentin Tarantino film, and not a James Cameron production; so it’s something to be judged by a separate set of standards.
I often see people have concerns about the density of the Jamaican dialect in James’ writing, and as someone who is of Jamaican descent I may be oblivious to the difficulties that people may face reading it. However, I will say that I have read many other literary works featuring stylised dialects from all around the world, and I never had a problem interpreting what was being written. I personally don’t believe that James’ stlylized dialects would be hard to follow for non-Caribbean people at all, but sometimes it can be difficult to tell who is speaking because James’ uses a hyphen to represent dialogue instead of quotation marks.
What’s scary about A Brief History of Seven Killings is that it will have you resonating with its cast of flawed characters. Josey Wales for example, is the biggest psychopath the story has to offer, originating from James’ invented ghetto of Copenhagen City in Kingston. You could say that Josey orchestrates much of the chaos in this story, and his chaos crosses all the way over to New York City in the 1980’s. But by the end of the book you may be secretly empathising with him for all the wrong reasons. It’s because James’ characters are so well crafted that they expose just how blurred the lines are between right and wrong.
Another standout character is a female of many names. Her journey is sort of a spin-off from the core events that take place, with a few small ties that link her. By the end of the book her story comes full circle and adds validity to the consequences caused by Josey’s chaos. Other characters include Alex Pierce, a writer for Rolling Stones who is in Jamaica on assignment around the time of Marley’s shooting; Papa-lo, a don in the ghetto who’s for the peace treaty, and a CIA agent set out to combat all communist activity on the island. Every character has a voice of their own. Their thoughts become clearly distinguishable, to the point you’ll eventually know which character you’re reading about, even if James doesn’t tell you.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is such an ambitious tale that I’m surprised Marlon James even won the Man Booker Award for it. That’s because I wasn’t aware that the masses were so open minded to digest such heavy themes. The book may not be an easy commitment, but by the end of it you’ll appreciate just how well put together it is. James mentions that he had numerous researchers helping him on the project, and it shows. There are so many parallels to real life events, and references to country law and politics that it’s hard to imagine that one man is capable of putting this together in just four years. James should be admired for weaving together such imaginative scenarios and intertwining them with reality.
Put simply, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a masterpiece. Its only flaw is its length, and the dedication needed to get through the experience. Once you manage to get a third of the way through, these flaws may become obsolete, as James does an excellent job sparking enough intrigue to keep you glued.