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A Brief History of Seven Killings

Rebecca Foster

Marlon James
Oneworld Publications, 704 pp


Welcome to de dread
circle of carnage - blade to
blade, bullet
to bullet, body to body, this is
our country.

Kei Miller, Jamaican poet


In a year in which very long books - Purity by Jonathan Franzen, City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara - have dominated the literary scene, Marlon James won the Booker Prize for his 700-page saga of Jamaican gang violence, A Brief History of Seven Killings. It's the first time the Booker has gone to a Jamaican author, but the fourth consecutive year of recognising a book of over 400 pages is perhaps a testament to our collective love of epic stories. The novel covers 15 years, starting with an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in December 1976 and migrating to Miami and New York City to show the Kingston crime network expanding. It has a full-on, filmic quality reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino and The Wire; indeed, work has begun on an HBO series.

The helpful 75-member cast list at the start is ample warning that this is a big, complicated story that requires close attention. Even readers who are unfamiliar with Jamaican history should quickly absorb the late 1970s context, however. A bitter battle is underway between two fictional gangs, in parallel to that between Jamaica's rival political groups. So Papa-Lo, don of the Copenhagen City ghetto, supports the Jamaica Labour Party, while Shotta Sherrif and his Eight Lanes crew back the People's National Party. Marley, known here only as 'The Singer', has been seen meeting with both gang leaders. A shipment of guns has gone missing at the port, and local CIA agents are nervous. Criminal intent, always there under the surface, flares up in unexpected ways, as when Nina Burgess's elderly parents are the victims of an armed robbery. She wants the Singer to get them visas to the States, but she is only one of dozens of women who, having slept with him, come to his house to supplicate.

The novel opens on December 2nd and in its first 100 pages or so introduces a dizzying variety of characters, each with distinct voices. Successive chapters pile on first-person narratives from Nina, the CIA station chief, various gangsters, a Rolling Stone journalist, and a murdered politician who delivers world-weary observations on the country's disintegration from beyond the grave. For the most part, James alternates patois and standard speech, but nearly every section is packed with local slang and expletives. Whether in monologue or dialogue, these voices form a captivating chorus.

One stand-out perspective is that of Bam-Bam, a teenage gang member who recalls witnessing his parents' murder and committing his first execution. His chapters are full of run-on phrases beginning with 'and', one in the form of an extended poem; his might not be traditionally good writing, but it's remarkably page-turning, even if it's distressing to see how inured he is to sexualised violence. He is also obsessed with the Singer, sometimes addressing him directly. Early on Marley appears as a Christ figure, pacifying gunmen and planning a peace concert before facing martyrdom. Bam-Bam remembers how 'at one point you come talk to us like you was Jesus and we was Iscariot and you nod as if to say get on with your business and do what you have to do.' When Marley survives the December 3rd assassination attempt, Bam- Bam declares that 'He beat death like Lazarus, like Jesus.'

Such biblical language saturates the characters' speech - mostly New Testament allusions to the crucifixion and apocalypse like 'You see what thirty pieces of silver can buy', 'somebody going judge the quick and the dead', 'he more paranoid than Judas hiding after he betray Jesus', and 'The world now feeling like the seven seals breaking one after the other.' Rastafarianism makes much symbolic use of Babylon and Zion, and Papa-Lo sounds like a rasta prophet when he intones, 'Many more will have to suffer. Many more will have to die. … the world is nothing but Babylon justice that treat we like animal.' Old Testament imagery is prominent, too, as when Bam-Bam observes a 'woman still standing there like she is Lot wife / That look back / Salt' and fellow gangster Demus describes 'fire like burning bush in Exodus.'

The novel is in five parts, each named after a popular song or album of the time. At 350 pages, this would be a near-perfect piece of historical fiction: bloody and immediate, yet showing the full range of Jamaican experience; especially remarkable for having a strong female lead, Nina. But even after the assassination attempt and a competent recap, in February 1978, of changes wrought in the meantime, there is still half the book to come. James's scope, especially as he follows Papa-Lo's successor, Josey Wales, to the Bronx, is perhaps too wide. All the narrative switches, once so dynamic, grow tiresome. Only very keen readers will have sufficient energy to meet new characters (or old ones in new guises) at the 450-page mark.

Marley spent two years in exile and organised a second peace concert on his return to Jamaica; he died of cancer in 1981, though rumours of a CIA conspiracy endure. While the novel's title may seem tongue-incheek - it's anything but brief, and there are dozens of murders - it has specific significance. There were said to be seven gunmen involved in the attack on Marley, and one by one the novel shows vigilante and police killings taking them out, often in hypnotic, breathtaking scenes. James, the son of Jamaican police officers, has spoken of his wish to write about violence in such a way that it is shocking every time, and he certainly succeeds here. This is an edgy, worthwhile Booker pick. Not for the fainthearted; rather, for brave ones who face violence head-on, knowing that somewhere beyond it, 'somebody is singing Redemption Song'.