A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

Riverhead Books, 2014

I’ll preface by admitting that this book is very hard to read, and for multiple reasons. The first chapter is from the POV of the ghost of a politician who speaks in a flowery/poetic prose. The second chapter is from the POV of a boy born in a  Kingston ghetto who speaks in a Jamaican dialect. And from there, the story gets harder to follow before it gets easier. There’s an extremely steep learning curve for both learning who all of the characters are and for being able to read and understand the Jamaican dialect that the majority of the book is written in. It’s slow going and 700 pages long, but if you feel up to it, A Brief History of Seven Killings is devastating and incredible and sheds light on a world and a history horrifying beyond belief.

If forced to choose the focal point of the novel, it would be the fictional account of the very real assassination attempt on Bob Marley (referred to only as “the singer” in the novel) before his Smile Jamaica concert in 1976. However, do not think this novel is in any way about Bob Marley. It is not about one thing or one individual at all. It, through a cast of 50+ characters all with their own stories, chronicles the political/social unrest and growing drug trade in Jamaica in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Characters include gang members, dons, political leaders, CIA agents, drug dealers, a white journalist, and a middle-class Jamaican woman who wants nothing more than to immigrate to America. Marlon James’ ability to weave and balance so many stories within one narrative is incredible.

There is no moral to the story in Seven Killings. It is full of unimaginable cruelty, ugliness,  and poverty. The depth of the racism, sexism, and homophobia inside and outside of Jamaican society is shocking. Rape, murder, and police brutality are so commonplace that they begin to feel almost normal. While the ghettos see the worst of it, the cruelty and injustice is not contained only within them.The most memorable story-line in the novel for me (possibly because it is the only continuous story-line from the POV of a woman) is that of a middle-class Jamaican girl who faces injustice and judgement from everyone around her – her parents, her sister, her lovers, the police, and complete strangers.

There are a million beautiful, striking, poignant, shocking, or illuminating quotes throughout A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the following is the one I want to leave you with:

“[He] think it an even match, they with power, he with being right.”

Links: Rolling Stone on Marlon James | Goodreads | Buy it on bookshop .org

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