A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James #ManBookerPrize

Brief HistoryMarlon James novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2015, a year that saw an exceptionally diverse array of novels long listed.

As a reminder, since it was nearly a year ago that this book won the prize, this was what Michael Wood, Chair of the judges, had to say about it:

‘This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

‘It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.’

It is a novel that was hailed as being exceptional in itself, much of it written in that Jamaican patois mentioned, via a litany of voices from the ganglands of the Jamaican ghetto.

I admit that it wasn’t exactly on my reading list, with its promise of violence, killing, drug related activities and dozens of characters, however the book was gifted to me by a visiting Professor, who had little to say about it, but was keen to know my thoughts. So I made it my #OneSummerChunkster and jumped right in, mind wide open.

It is difficult and almost seems inappropriate to rate this novel (I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.com) in terms of appeal, as it is an incredibly written and unique work, with a huge amount of research that went into the writing and authenticity of its creation.

Marlon JamesI can’t say I loved it, it was a tough read in places and definitely not the kind of book I would normally choose nor the kind of film/TV series I would watch, but it is an awe-inspiring creation and for that I agree, it is indeed an amazing oeuvre and warrants the 5 stars, though as far as favourite books go or works I’d recommend, I hesitate and would say its not an experience I would choose to repeat often.

I was grateful for the list of characters up front, which I referred to often at the beginning of each chapter, as we are plunged straight into the multi-character narrative with its discordant musical tones, slice of life in the ghetto, the Singer (never referred to by name) not present, though always there in the greater awareness of them all. Life has little meaning and killing a mere rise above assault.

It must have been incredible to listen to the audio version as the individual character voices are so unique, it is the literary equivalent of reading a musical score for a symphony like you’ve never heard before, I am in awe that Marlon James succeeded in creating such a work, that balances so many threads of narrative, so many characters, the timeline, the Jamaican patois, the gangspeak, the violence, the framing of the story around the assassination attempt of that “Singer” who is never named, assumed to be Bob Marley. As Eileen Battersby, reviewer of The Irish Times put it so eloquently:

Reading Marlon’s prose is akin to injecting liquid fire into your brain.

It paints a dark, dangerous picture of ghetto life and the activities, interactions of drug dealers and their crews and the fear by those who are in any way touched or implicated in their actions. In a schizophrenic stream of consciousness narrative, gang members live their days in altered states of consciousness, paranoid, high, wanting to kill – in a frantic, dangerous other worldly horror.

Flicking between the narratives of CIA members, a young woman afraid of what she has witnessed, a journalist, all present leading up to the attempted shooting of the Singer. Surreal. It made me wonder at times if the author was in an altered state of consciousness while writing – it is some kind of trip!

I did have to push myself in parts to keep going, it’s brutal at times, and upon reaching halfway, I took the afternoon off to read The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba.  But then the pace picked up again as Papa-Lo the don, and top members of a rival gang were about to be chucked into jail together in the hope they’d self destruct. James’s lulls never last and we are pulled back into the riveting storyline, following our favourites and steeling ourselves against spending time the company of those we know are going to detest.

Book of Night WomenI was left admiring the creation even if it wasn’t always a particularly enjoyable ride and as my comment made to another reader below shows, the beach was actually a great place to read it!

I feel like I’m reading a Jamaican symphony, a cacophony of words and sounds and emotions, not sure if it was the heat of the sun or the power of the book, but I had to keep putting it down to take a plunge into the cool ocean!

That said, I am intrigued and do intend to read Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women wondering how he handles a story with female characters.

Click Here to Buy A Novel by Marlon James at Book Depository!

30 thoughts on “A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James #ManBookerPrize

    • Thanks for that, it looks like a tough environment to dwell within, but I am keen to read it, I’ve enjoyed so many of the works of women writers from the region, so interesting to enter into the literary universe of Marlon James, this novel doesn’t have that same characteristic, so I put it in the ‘reading outside the comfort zone’ category!

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  1. I thought pretty much the same as you ! I don’t think ‘enjoyed’ is the right word for this one ….but wow! What an undertaking which mostly succeeded ….maybe a tad overlong but still some amazing characters and voices . I just noticed that this has been trans into French and took a quick peek in my local bookshop today . Hats off to the translator ! Chapeau !

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    • Wow, how to translate that into French, I wonder which ‘patois’ they went with.

      I was speaking to one of my students recently about language and the perception or defensiveness that many have regarding English taking over, I was saying that it wasn’t all that long ago that French was imposed on this nation, only 100 or so years and at first he looked at me quizzically and then a kind of light went off and he told me actually his parents only began to learn French when they started school, they had spoken a local patois from the rural region they grew up in until then – a language forbidden to be spoken at school. His generation don’t know that language at all, and are in the process of forgetting it ever existed.

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      • We went to a centre for Langue D’Oc when we were on Hol once ….it was fascinating . The guy there was saying that it was WW1 that really put an end to it …..so many people displaced and killed .
        My French isn’t good enough to tell which patois they used for BamBam etc …may get OH to have a look . It was deg translated in a partic style …

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  2. Wow. You make this sound incredible. I’ve not read and had no plans to read it but now I’m intrigued. I am a fan of gangland TV/films (The Sopranos, Underbelly, Love/Hate, Breaking Bad etc) probably because it is so far removed from my life that it’s fascinating to see how others live theirs. Anyway, thanks for your review: onto my wish list it goes!

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  3. You do a brilliant job of conveying its complexity, while at the same time being a bit reticent in your recommendation. That is how I felt; I could not finish it, but I do admire James’ skill. It seems an oxymoron, somehow.

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    • Thank you. It’s rare that I am unable to finish a book and when I don’t it’s usually one I didn’t choose, so this one risked falling into that category, but it was a combination of a couple of interesting characters that kept me going and importantly having a significant chunk of time to indulge it.

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    • That’s what prize winning books often do don’t they, they put books in front of us we would never dream of reading otherwise. Personally, I tend to find my favourites on the long list, but when a mind-bending novel comes along like this, it’s not a bad thing to have a view from the inside.

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  4. I’ve been wanting to read this one too, and funnily enough for all the reasons you mentioned were difficult to get through, I think I might enjoy it. I don’t know much about Jamaican literature, and I often find these kinds of books give me a good sense of the climate and the culture. Might bump this one up. Great review🙂

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    • It’s certainly worth the effort, and might represent one aspect of the culture, I imagine that there is much more to Jamaican culture than this sad and violent depiction though, for it is seen here through the eyes of gang members and drug dealers and through men.

      Interestingly I’ve just finished Zora Neale Hurston’s excellent Their Eyes Were Watching God and it is also written in a kind of patois or dialect, but much easier to follow, I could hear everything really easily despite the way its written, and she looks at life through the feminine lens, she is the Yin to Marlon James Yang, a perspective that really gets inside a woman’s view and growing insight and wisdom. Sad but nourishing at the same time.

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  5. Great review, Claire! I do love how you rate the skilled writing on the one hand and your experience reading it on the other. I’ve heard that the book is a tough read, but still want to give it a go. But I have to confess I’m more excited to read his first book cause female characters!🙂 Maybe that’ll also prepare me for book 2.

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    • I’m looking forward to reading The Book of Night Women too, for the same reason you mention. Have you read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God? I just finished it and the use if dialect made me think of Marlon James and how different the feminine perspective is. It’s a brilliant evocation of her quest for fulfilment.

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  6. The first part of the book was very effective, I found that by the end all the sexual references were just grating and it could have ended a little earlier but overall a powerful book. It is great to have books we may never have thought to read being brought to our attention.

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    • It’s a marathon of a book for sure and some parts require speed reading, but an admirable effort. I recommend Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for an alternative female perspective written in dialect but very accessible, a classic that may have even inspired Marlon James. Watch out for my upcoming review.

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  7. Your review is spot on concerning A Brief History. This is the perfect book for an author to read that’s considering writing from many different voices. The structure of the novel is brilliantly done. After hearing him speak about writing I’m in awe how he could pull off such a complex novel. It’s definitely going to go down as his magnum opus. I read part of the novel with the audiobook but I’d like to reread the entire book again with the audiobook.

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    • Thank you Celeste. Look out for my upcoming review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which I call the feminine Yin to James masculine Yang. She writes in a beautifully evocative dialect that is like music to the ears and on subjects close to a woman’s heart, the desire for fulfilment and self discovery. Perhaps you have read her already?

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  8. Pingback: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – Word by Word

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