A Brief History of Seven Killings is the kind of book that leads to Nobel Prizes. It is political without being polemical, and it delves deeply into a single culture while reflecting the ways that culture interacts with the rest of the world. Kingston-born Marlon James is to Jamaica what James Joyce is to Ireland or William Faulkner is to the American South. From his brilliant debut John Crow’s Devil (2005) to critical darling The Book of Night Women (2010), and now A Brief History of Seven Killings, James just keeps getting better.
A Brief History of Seven Killings has an epic scope, covering three decades and traveling from Kingston to Miami to New York as political upheaval in the Caribbean connects to the crack epidemic in the United States. The book takes as its jumping-off point the 1976 assassination attempt against Bob Marley, who is only referred to as “the Singer.” At the time, Jamaica was in a state of emergency (which the government called “heavy manners”) due to open warfare between gangs connected to the country’s two major political parties. The shooting remains officially unsolved, which gives James license to develop a fictionalized account.
In James’ version, the perpetrators are members of a gang with ties to the anti-communist Jamaica Labour Party, which in turn has ties to the American Central Intelligence Agency (and the JLP’s connection to the CIA during the Cold War is not fictitious). Throughout the book, characters repeat a Jamaican proverb, “If it no go so, it go near so,” which essentially means that stories carry a kernel of truth, even if the specific details are not right. This proverb is a good summation of James’ efforts to fictionalize history.
The novel is divided into five sections: “Original Rockers: December 2, 1976” (a reference to the 1979 Augustus Pablo album); “Ambush in the Night: December 3, 1976” (a reference to the 1979 Marley song about the assassination attempt); “Shadow Dancin’: February 15, 1979” (Andy Gibb, 1978); “White Lines/Kids in America: August 14, 1985” (Grandmaster Melle Mel, 1983/Kim Wilde, 1981); and “Sound Boy Killing: March 22, 1991” (Mega Banton, 1994). As these titles make clear, each section covers a single day, and music plays an important role.
The significance of music is not surprising in a book featuring Bob Marley as a character. The Singer’s lyrics pepper the speech of those who dwell in or visit Kingston. But its not just reggae. Despite the Singer’s international superstardom, he competed with ska, rocksteady and even disco for the ears of Kingston. James’ love for music is obvious, as are his wide tastes. Artists from Desmond Dekker to Tom Petty and everyone in between earn references here. This book should come with a soundtrack.
In addition to structuring itself around five significant days, the novel achieves its epic sweep through a couple dozen different narrators. Each chapter is a first-person account of a different character. We get the perspectives of gang leaders, the lowly rudeboys and shottas who follow them, an American journalist, a young woman infatuated with the Singer, a CIA agent, a Cuban narco-terrorist and even the ghost (“duppy”) of a murdered politician. These different narrators allow James to show how issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and language play a role in how these events unfolded in Jamaica and the United States.
Perhaps the novel’s most distinctive feature is its use of language. Much like Irvine Welsh, James has characters speak English that felt like foreign language to my American eyes. But as the novel progressed, so did my fluency. Like Joyce and Welsh, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, James finds poetry in the speech of common folk. Indeed, the book includes one long rant by a coked-up teenage hitman presented in stanzas. The ghetto dwellers might “chat bad” but they never come off as stupid. The stupid ones in this book are most often condescending Americans who confuse patois with lack of intelligence. When the CIA attempts to play puppet-master to the Kingston gangs, it is the underestimated gang leaders who end up pulling the strings.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is serious literature that reads like a fast-paced mystery novel. James expertly threads together a couple dozen narrative threads to form an engaging and thought-provoking epic. This is truly a great book.