Friday 6 November 2015

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

If you are not to get lost in the highways and byways of this epic Man Booker winner, it helps beforehand to know a little Jamaican history.

During the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, two political parties were vying for power, each backed, to some extent, by rival gangs. One of those parties was taking an increasingly socialist stance and making overtures towards Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and this was making the US extremely nervous. It is widely alleged that the CIA armed, and possibly provided drugs, to one of the gangs, in order to swing power to the party sympathetic to the US.

This gang – the Shower Posse – went on to become one of the most powerful drug gangs of the 1980s and early 90s, controlling the supply of crack cocaine in New York and other US cities. But before that, in 1976, when reggae singer Bob Marley returned to Jamaica to hold a Peace Concert, a group of men from the Shower Posse shot and almost killed him and members of his family in his own home.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is set against a barely fictionalised version of those events.  In it, the Shower Posse becomes the Storm Posse. Tivoli Gardens, the Kingston neighbourhood where they were based, becomes Copenhagen City. Their leader is transformed into the gloriously named Josey Wales, while Bob Marley is referred to only as ‘The Singer.’

The book opens in the days leading up to the attempted assassination of The Singer. The plot, such as it is, follows what happens to those who took part, through the rise of the powerful drug syndicates, to the death, 15 years later, of the last surviving shooter.

As the Jamaican proverb quoted at the beginning of the book says, "If it no go so, it go near so."

But A Brief History is, above all, a novel of voice. James has said that the book began with what he believed were two false starts – the voices of John-John K, gay hitman in 1980s New York, and Bam Bam, minor gang member in 1970s Kingston. It was only when he began to think of them as part of the same whole that the book began to take shape – a book which lists over 70 named characters, of which 15 take turns to narrate the story. They include gang members, drug lords, CIA members, a journalist, a nurse.

The novel is structured like a patchwork quilt. Each of the fifteen voices is a colour, cut into small pieces and sewn together. Some colours – Josey Wales, holding his empire together through terror; the derailed music journalist Alex Pierce, doggedly hunting down the truth; Nina Burgess, reinventing herself over and over to escape from her past – sweep across the whole book, creating its dominant notes. Other voices are highlights, used selectively in parts. It’s only when you reach the end of the book that you can step back and appreciate the whole pattern.

A Brief History is not an easy book to read. Many of the segments are written as streams of consciousness. Most are in one flavour or another of Jamaican dialect. By the fifth and final section, James has stopped heading chapters with the name of the narrator, expecting you to recognise their voices. You have to read slowly to appreciate the dense texture of the writing – but at the same time, you need to hold onto the bigger picture, to remember where characters have come from and how they fit together.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Pychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, All Involved by Ryan Gattis, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

Avoid if you don’t like: Fragmented narratives, novels written it dialect, graphic violence

Ideal accompaniments: Fry chicken ‘light brown and soft inside,’ with rice and peas and fried plantain so ripe it ‘just mash up in your mouth’.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Available from Amazon

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