Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Brief History of Seven Killings
From A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James:
Open quote 

There's a reason why the story of the ghetto should never come with a photo. The Third World slum is a nightmare that defies beliefs or facts, even the ones staring right at you. A vision of hell that twists and turns on itself and grooves to its own soundtrack. Normal rules do not apply here. Imagination then, dream, fantasy. You visit a ghetto, particularly a ghetto in West Kingston, and it immediately leaves the real to become this sort of grotesque, something out of Dante or the infernal painting of Hieronymus Bosch. It's a rusty red chamber of hell that cannot be described so I will not try to describe it. It cannot be photographed because some parts of West Kingston, such as Rema, are in the grip of such bleak and unremitting repulsiveness that the inherent beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about just how ugly it really is."

Spoiler alert: This novel is not brief and there are way more than seven killings. But the excerpt above is an accurate description of the world depicted in this novel. The novel won a shelf-load of awards, probably deservedly so, but be warned: it's not for everyone.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

I feel bad giving this novel a mediocre grade. Because it's a serious work of fiction: innovative, demanding, intense, even epic. But it's exhausting as well. It's long. It's violent. It's vulgar. It packs a punch. Many readers won't be able to finish it. So, should I grade it an "A" or an "F"? One thing it's not is average, which is why my split-the-difference "C+" grade is so misleading.

"A Brief History of Seven Killings" tells the story surrounding the attempted assassination of reggae star Bob Marley in his Jamaican home in 1976 just before a planned peace concert leading up to tumultuous Jamaican elections. Marley is the central character, but it's not his story that's being told. In fact, he's simply described as "the singer." It's all the other characters who get to tell their own stories that gives this novel its punch.

The stories are told as interleaved oral histories by the various characters involved. These include gang members, drug dealers, a CIA agent, a reporter for Rolling Stone (the speaker in the excerpt above), and one feisty young woman who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The most distinctive feature of the writing is the use of Jamaican slang. It's so heavy it may be unintelligible to many American ears.

The story takes years to unfold, moving from Jamaica to New York, with interruptions from Columbia, Cuba, Miami, and even the afterlife along the way. The violence throughout inevitably leads to the killings in the title. The still ambiguous details surrounding the real life assassination attempt are not completely resolved in this fictional retelling. But like I said, the assassination attempt is only the plate Marlon James uses to serve his rich menu of characters. They tell their own stories, in their own way. Their lives may be petty, mean, and raw, but for readers who aren't put off by the characters, language, or actions, Marlon James's storytelling is worth the slog.

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