Friday Reads: Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings and the Book of the Night Women

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a difficult book. It is an incredibly masterful book, written by a wonderfully skilled writer, but there is no getting away from the fact that it is difficult. It’s also very, very long (almost 700 pages – the obvious joke is that it is not brief, and there are a lot more than seven killings), and it took me until the half way point to really get into it. Once I got to that point, however, I didn’t want to stop reading!

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I am always slightly put off by a book that begins by listing a cast of characters. Immediately it makes me think that it is going to be a complicated book, that it will be hard to keep track of who is whom, that perhaps it will not be so well told. I never read the cast of names at the beginning as I find it impossible to keep a list of meaningless names in my head. I also don’t tend to flick back while reading as it is too time-consuming and removes you from the story – but perhaps this book would benefit from reading it as a real book rather than on a kindle as it does make it easier to flick backwards and forwards. And the list of characters probably would help add to the reader’s understanding of the book, at least at first.

The book opens like this:

Listen.

Dead people never stop talking.

And immediately you are launched into an odyssey of deaths, violence, shootings and drugs that never lets up.

A Brief History of Seven Killings follows Jamaica from the early 1970s through several decades. It is told through the voices of numerous different characters, most in various forms of Jamaican dialect, and all in first person. That’s what makes the beginning really quite difficult to get to grips with – who is speaking in which chapter? Who is this character and who’s side is he on?

The story is centred on the attempted killing of Bob Marley, referred to throughout as The Singer. There were seven would-be assassins, none of whom were ever found by police, and yet just a few decades later, all of them were dead from violence in one way or another. And yet, the Singer and his assassination are not the focus of the book – they are not the point. They are merely the hook through which to enter the tumultuous word of Jamaica in the 1970s.

There are two main political parties vying for power, the Jamaican Labour Party (centre-right) and the People’s National Party (socialist). They both use gangs in order to win support in the slums of Kingston, leading to an intensity of violence. Added to this, America, through the CIA, is extremely keen to ensure Jamaica doesn’t fall prey to a Socialist government, due to its nearness to Cuba in the time of the Cold War. The Singer’s attempted assassination occurred a few days before a “peace concert” – meant to foster peace between the two warring political parties, but seen by many as PNP propaganda. From the elections onwards, Jamaica succumbs to drug culture, with drug gangs in Colombia supplying cocaine and Jamaican gang masters dealing drugs on the streets in New York. So it’s an epic that pulls together Jamaican politics, world politics, and the smaller disputes between rival drug gang members.

The characters are gang members, journalists, politicians, CIA spies, a multitude of different voices piling up. Although the main plot as such focuses on Jamaica, it is an incredibly character-driven novel, with characters beautifully drawn and nuanced. For example, the incredible Josey Wales who takes over as gang leader – a violent man who thinks nothing of shooting somebody in the back in cold blood, who pretends to be an ignorant Jamaican whilst playing the CIA at their own game:

I don’t tell him that yo tengo suficiente español para concocer que eres la más gran broma en Sudamérica. I chat to him bad like some bush naigger and ask dumb question like, So everybody in America have gun? What kinda bullet American fire?

Josey Wales, who waits for a call about an assassination while his sleepy daughter cuddles into his lap, Josey Wales who walks through a crack house in the U.S. with a gun in each hand, shooting everyone in sight, Josey Wales who, like the rest of the characters, ultimately dies in violence.

But it’s not just violent and horrific, it is also funny, filled with perfectly crafted sentences at just the right point that make the reader almost laugh out loud – like Josey Wales’ manipulation of the self-important CIA man, Mr Clark:

– You poor, precious people don’t even know that you’re on the very verge of anarchy.

– Me don’t understand. If we precious, how we must be poor? Diamond precious.

…….

Mr Clark talk about Cuba like a man who can’t accept that him woman don’t want him no more. And he not letting that happen to Jamaica, whatever he think that might mean. Strange how a man wants to fuck with a country him never live in before. Maybe he should wait a year and then ask himself if this country really worth buying a Valentine’s card for. I tell you, move with these white men long enough and you start to talk like them.

A few of the gang members mentioned are gay, not a plot point but just a fact and a dangerous one at that in a world where “batty boy” is a very real insult. But the fight between their gang-member, violent self and their sexuality also makes for some amusing moments – such as when one character has broken into a house to carry out an assassination:

Every now and then I get some hint that I am really just a stereotypical fag, for example, who the fuck had the great idea to paint this whole hall area mustard?

Then there is the wonderful character of Nina Burgess, one of the few female characters in the novel, a young Jamaican woman trying to escape from Jamaica. Through her the sexism and machismo of Jamaican society is exposed, but Nina’s sad story isn’t just that – James has given her a wonderfully sardonic voice that lightens the moments and meant I was always looking forward to Nina’s chapters. Indeed, James has said that his voice only comes through in some of Nina’s musings in the book. That, perhaps, is interesting from a gender perspective – in a book so heavily dominated not just by male characters but an incredibly macho world, the male author puts his own voice into the only female voice…. or maybe I am over-thinking!

It’s a book whose mastery you perhaps only fully appreciate once you have finished it – and now, having had time to digest it properly, having read numerous reviews and interviews with the author, I really want to re-read. Especially the beginning part, where I felt pretty lost with trying to work out who all the characters were and what exactly was going on. If you want to know a bit more as well, I would recommend this interview with Marlon James which is really interesting.

The man [V.S. Naipul in The Middle Passage] say West Kingston is a place so fucking bad that you can’t even take a picture of it, because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you as to just how ugly it really is. Oh you read it? Trust me, even him have it wrong. The beauty of how him write that sentence still lie to you as to how ugly it is. It is so ugly it shouldn’t produce no pretty sentence, ever.

I didn’t realise until I started reading, but Marlon James also wrote one of my other favourite books – The Book of Night Women.

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This is a slave epic set on the fictional Montpelier Estate at the end of the 18th century in Jamaica, with a green-eyed young slave girl, Lilith, at its heart. The writing is beautiful and devastating, refusing to shy away from horrific violence, but, like A Brief History, also refusing to characterise any character as good or evil, refusing to simplify things for the reader. There is rape, there is torture, there is murder, there is obeah, there is love… of a sort, all told through Lilith’s lyrical patois. I re-read it this week after finishing all the Bookers and immediately remembered why I loved it and just how much.

People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson…not when the midwife know that the mother shed too much blood … not when blood spurt from the skin, or spring from the axe, the cat-o’-nine, the whip, the cane and the blackjack and every day in slave life is a day that colour red.

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