A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings takes it’s inspiration from real events.  In December 1976, gunmen stormed the home of Bob Marley in an assassination attempt that is thought to be politically motivated.  Marley and his wife were both injured, although both survived the attack.  Two days later, Bob Marley played at a free concert arranged by the Jamaican Prime Minister before moving to London for two years in self-imposed exile.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fictional retelling of these events, told from the perspective of a broad cast of characters – gangsters and drug dealers, journalists, the CIA.  Opening with the day preceding the attack, we see this event through the eyes of multiple people, both directly and indirectly involved, as well as the aftermath years later.

This is a brutal novel that doesn’t shy away from the realities of living in the slums.  It’s not excessive in the details, however, there is nothing gratuitous in the telling of these events, it’s simply opening up the harsher realities of life that some people faced at the time.  It also makes significant use of Jamaican patois.  This made it a little difficult to follow at times, as there is no explanation for some of the terms used, although you get the gist of it for the most part.

I struggled at first to follow what was going on.  The first two sections are told in short, punchy chapters from multiple perspectives, and it was sometimes a little hard to tell who was in who’s gang, or what their role was.  if you feel like this, keep going – it does become clearer and the events do tie together.  There is a cast of characters at the beginning of the book which helps at the outset.

Given the broad cast of characters, I think it’s hard to give each one a unique voice.  James manages it for the most part, although I admit that some of the gang members blurred together a little for me.  And for me, Nina was the stand-out character.  A previous one night stand of Marley’s, the novel opens with her observing his house, hoping to speak to him.  She hopes that, amongst all his flings, he will remember her, and will help her to leave the country.  She has no expectations beyond this – no hopes of him sweeping her off her feet, she just doesn’t know what else to do to escape.

In section three, which picks up the lives of the characters some three years or so after the attempted assassination, the style changes.  Instead of the brief chapters used in the first two sections, section three consists of fewer but longer, more detailed chapters.  I’m not sure what the reason for this was – perhaps it’s a reflection on events being calmer at the time, given that there’s no build up to a pivotal, high-octane event as in the first two sections, but I don’t think that this part worked as well as the rest of the novel.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is an ambitious novel, and it’s not difficult to see why it’s been short listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize.  I believe that this is exactly the sort of novel that could go onto to win this accolade.  It’s not the easiest of reads, but it will stay with me for a long time.

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