A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

There’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture…

In December 1976, Bob Marley’s home in Jamaica was invaded by seven gunmen. Marley, his wife Rita, and his manager Don Taylor were all shot; Rita and Taylor were seriously injured but made full recoveries, while Marley was hit in the chest and the arm. Two days later, with the bullet still in his arm because taking it out would have caused irreparable nerve damage, Marley played the Smile Jamaica concert, an event that was intended to promote peace between the country’s two major political parties. At the end of that month, he left Jamaica for England. He didn’t return until his death five years later.

None of the men who had attempted to assassinate him were ever found by police.

From this stew of national mythology, conspiracy theory and gang violence, Marlon James pulled a novel. In the Acknowledgments, he writes that he only figured out how to structure the book when a friend told him to read As I Lay Dying. The multiple narrators do echo Faulkner’s strategy, as does the way that the narrative circles around events, telling and retelling them from different perspectives. The more I thought about this, the more I saw at least one major similarity between Faulkner’s project and James’s: they’re both trying to demonstrate how a national or regional culture can utterly sway and destroy individual lives, while at the same time, individuals are the very ones who are creating that destructiveness. Faulkner’s canvas is small and basically apolitical, while James’s is epic (a word difficult to avoid using when discussing this book) and deeply political, but their character-drivenness makes them kissing cousins.

It helps to know a little about Jamaican history, and about Cold War politics, when reading this book. From what I already knew, and from a bit of judicious Googling, I gathered the following: there were two major political parties in post-WWII Jamaica, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), which was centre-right, and the People’s National Party (PNP), which was socialist. Both the JLP and the PNP used street gangs to help them whip votes in West Kingston—we’re repeatedly told that whoever wins West Kingston wins the whole of Kingston, and whoever wins Kingston wins Jamaica. Marley’s “peace concert” was PNP propaganda, or at least it was seen to be, despite the claims that it was meant to foster bipartisanship. Meanwhile, the CIA, with all of its customary paranoid alacrity, was desperate to prevent a socialist government in Jamaica, considering how close it was to Castro’s Cuba. And this is all before the assassination attempt; after it, we have to contend with the Jamaican organized-crime syndicate in New York and its alliances with the Colombian drug cartels.

This complexity is necessary because everything is intensely interrelated. The Bob Marley figure in the book is referred to simply as The Singer. (Lots of reviews assert that he’s never referred to by name at all; he is actually called “Marley” once, pretty early on.) The Singer is the hook from which A Brief History of Seven Killings hangs, but he himself is curiously elided; he doesn’t speak much if at all. He’s not the point. The header quote that I chose for this review seemed to gesture at that fact: the real story is in the people who surrounded him. Papa-Lo, the (fictional) don of the Copenhagen City ghetto, is replaced in 1979 by the fearsome and ambitious Josey Wales, and it’s Josey, for my money, who is the driving engine of this book. It is he who organizes the violence, it is he who has the most to gain and the most to lose, and it is he who eventually miscalculates and falls. He’s a brilliant character, pretending to be the shiny-toothed black stooge to the white CIA men while in reality playing them at their own games. He is terrifying and ruthless—there’s a scene where he shoots up a crack house that reads like a nightmarish video game walkthrough—yet he adores his common-law wife and his young daughter.

James excels at creating such nuance in his killers. There’s Weeper, who seems poised to take over from Josey until he starts using the supply of crack that he’s meant to be dealing; he’s a conflicted gay man living in a world where to be a “battyboy” is frankly a death sentence all on its own. There’s Bam-Bam, a fifteen-year-old who saw his parents raped and killed in front of his eyes and who was drafted into a ghetto gang before adolescence; he’s one of the gunmen who storms the Singer’s house. His gang handlers have got him hooked on cocaine, and for thirty-six hours before the assassination attempt, he’s been kept in a shed with four or five other men, all of them edging perilously close to a major comedown. When Josey and Weeper come with lines of cocaine and guns for them, they’ll do anything:

And I want to kill kill kill

And fuck fuck fuck

But instead I scream scream scream

There are, too, the characters whom I thought of as “the normal people”, which is a relative term, but refers essentially to those who aren’t gangsters or politicians. Among these is Nina Burgess, who walks unawares into the Marley house immediately after the shootings and is so terrified by her encounter with Josey there that she changes her name and flees the country; Barry Diflorio, the CIA Jamaica station chief, whose marriage is a car crash; and Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone who comes to interview the Singer and ends up spending twenty years of his life researching a story which, he eventually realizes, is much bigger than what nearly happened to one man. Nina is wonderfully well drawn, an intelligent, angry young woman whose sense of autonomy suits her better to life in America anyway, but who carries an immense freight of guilt and sorrow for leaving her family behind. Barry Diflorio was one of the few voices that didn’t entirely convince me; he felt too stereotypical, a sweaty, harried wiseguy with frightening responsibilities and a nagging, uncomprehending wife. Alex Pierce’s story, I’ll get to in a minute.

The book is divided into five sections, each one prefaced by a chapter narrated by one Sir Arthur George Jennings. He is listed in the book’s Dramatis Personae as “former politician, deceased.” It didn’t occur to me that he might be entirely fictional until I Googled him, looking for more information; it turns out that James did invent him, a white colonial bureaucrat who was, apparently, pushed to his death from a hotel balcony in the 1950s. Jennings haunts the novel both literally and figuratively; we see him appearing to characters who are about to die (who never understand just who this silent white man is), and his voice is present only once in each section, but it is infallibly there. His symbolic function is the most Faulknerian touch in the book: he’s a figure of the murdered Empire which just doesn’t go away, a past that isn’t dead because it is not even past. The ghost of Jennings warps the trajectory and perspective of the book in the same way that the ghosts of slavery and imperialism have warped the trajectory of Jamaica, and continue to do so. “Dead people”, as Jennings himself says, “never stop talking.”

That sort of ripple effect explains, I think, the book’s title. A Brief History of Seven Killings is the name of the article series that Alex Pierce eventually writes for The New Yorker, taking as its subject the aforementioned shootings in the crack house. As the title of the book, what it suggests is that any attempt to explain, to narrate or to historicize this story of violence is going to need to go a long, long way back to get to the beginning of it all. Critics communally moaned that the word “brief” is a tease in the title of a book that’s nearly 700 pages long; I would contend that the word “brief” is not ironic. It’s quite a Modernist idea, that you can never fully tell a story, that every detail, every backstory, is essential to how the Big Picture turns out. This history of killing spans nearly forty years, and that’s as brief as it could possibly be. It is still not finished.

NB: A Brief History of Seven Killings is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. I don’t think it will win—I think that decision would probably be too much, too soon for a historically fairly conservative prize—but it ought to make the shortlist. It’s certainly got the right balance between power and control, and it’s utterly engrossing. 

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5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

  1. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of it to start with, but it hooked me utterly. It took me a week to read it, mostly while commuting, and it was entrancing.

  2. I just finished this and had to come and read your review. 😀 I have to admit that I found it thoroughly thoroughly exhausting, and by the end I felt like my eyes were bleeding. It’s one of those books – a bit like Half of a Yellow Sun – that I greatly admire but can’t love, because I feel like reading them is more about doing my duty to bear witness than anything else. An amazing achievement, but ultimately draining.

    I had one major won’t go away problem with it, which was the lack of female voices. Nina might have many guises, but she bears a lot of responsibility representing half of the human race for 700 pages. Though I appreciate that the world James’ describes is male-oriented I can’t see why we couldn’t have heard from more women – Josey’s woman or daughter, Griselda Blanco, Rita Marley… I think it’s a real gap in the polyphony of experience in the book and a shame.

    • I saw that you’d replied to this aaaages ago and it’s taken me this long (nearly a month, good God) to come back! Yes, it is thoroughly exhausting to read. And yes, I think you’re right–I’d have loved to hear from Griseldo Blanco and Rita Marley or Josey’s woman. It felt less “worthy” to me than Half of a Yellow Sun did, so it’s interesting that you felt they were on the same axis, but I can see why it might have read that way. And you’ve also put your finger on something about Half of a Yellow Sun itself, which I really did enjoy, but it felt like there was an indefinable vacancy somewhere in it. Not a huge one, but there nonetheless. Perhaps that sense of bearing witness crowding out the plot is why. Perhaps that’s more to do with our position as privileged readers? I genuinely don’t know. I wonder if a Nigerian would read Half of a Yellow Sun the same way, or a Jamaican A Brief History of Seven Killings.

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