A Brief History of Seven Killings* is anything but brief, considering it’s sitting at a solid 686 pages. I knew that going in—it’s not like there’s a Spanx equivalent for books. Still, some lengthy literature doesn’t feel as long as it actually is. This big guy feels very much like 686 pages.
The page count isn’t the only daunting aspect. The novel features dozens of perspectives such that Marlon James, the author, includes a character glossary. The multitude of voices simultaneously intrigues and annoys me. Certainly, the range evidences James’ skill; however, jumping around so frequently lends to a jarring experience. It took a couple hundred pages before I could feel firmly situated and knowledgeable about who is who and how they are connected. This book is not for you if you’re not patient.
Furthermore, the novel spans more than one decade (1976-1991) and more than one country. It primarily focuses on Jamaican ghettos, expanding to America as Jamaican gangs expand their drug empire. So, while you’re trying to adjust to the number of characters, you’re also navigating ever-changing political and geographical contexts. Because most of the novel takes place in Jamaica, many of the speakers are Jamaican. The prevalence of Jamaican dialect adds to my confusion as a reader, although I’m appreciative that it forces me to learn the lingo of an unfamiliar culture. Overall, I think that the non-American bend is one of the novel’s strong suits, but it’s worth noting that it contributes to a feeling of not knowing what the hell is happening.
Patience isn’t the only prerequisite—you need to have some thick skin. James gets seriously dark. One chapter is from the point of view of a young boy getting buried alive. Sections begin with sentences like, “You can’t really know how it feels, just knowing deep down that in a few minutes these men will rape you” (James, 121). James doesn’t shy away from anything gruesome, sexual, or perverse.
To be clear, this work is fictional, but I had to continually remind myself of its creative license. The story is so exhaustive and there are enough factual tidbits that you start to believe you’re reading a very colorful history book. For instance (no spoilers here---this is a back-of-the-book plot point), the first portion of the novel focuses on an assassination attempt on the Singer. Although he’s never explicitly mentioned by name, the Singer is Bob Marley, and the trajectory of his life in the book closely matches that of his true existence. I guess I’m an asshole, because before this novel, I thought Marley had died of a drug overdose. In reality, he died of melanoma. Of note, there was a real-life attempt made on Marley motivated by politics and gang-related strife.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of James’ fact-fiction blending is his portrayal of the CIA as ruthlessly exploitive of Jamaica, a country at a crossroads. As one of the dons says, “Peace can’t happen when too much to gain in war” (James, 416). Clearly, James extensively researched his topic, and I wonder how much truth there is to America’s covert, selfish involvement in steering ghetto chaos, killings, and drug trade. I’ll avoid getting all conspiracy theorist on you, but I will say that James’ insinuations are compelling. At the very least, he draws attention to a political dynamic that beforehand I’d honestly never given a single thought.
I can tell that James poured himself into this novel, and some of the characters spoke to me and shook me. Unfortunately, I think the aforementioned negatives of reading a book of such volume and range temper the positives. I’m not surprised that James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. His feat is worth acknowledging, but his hard work doesn’t always translate into a story worthy of your time. As such, I give A Brief History of Seven Killings 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*James, Marlon. A Brief History of Seven Killings. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. Print.