Winner, The Man Booker Prize, 2015 On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years. Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters - assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts - A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 1970s, to the crack wars in 1980s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 1990s. Brilliantly inventive and stunningly ambitious, this novel is a revealing modern epic that will secure Marlon James' place among the great literary talents of his generation.
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I’m finally finished. Whew. Much of A Brief History of Seven Killings used a heavy Jamaican dialect. It took so long to read and listen to it (way too long, in my opinion) that I am thinking in that Jamaican dialect now! I’m afraid I might now burst out with a, “Me no like when you do dat ,” or worse, “ bombo pussy r’asscloth,” or , “fuckery,” or “pussyhole.” Oops.
I will never think about Jamaica in the same way again. Ocho Rios? College parties? Sandals resort? Forget it. This book embodies the Jamaica behind those scenes – at least from the 1960’s through about 1991. My biggest question remains: what is Jamaica really like NOW? Are the gangs still in power? The JLP? The PNP? Is the violence, poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness as bad as it was in this book?
The characters in A Brief History had no redeeming qualities, but their circumstances do have to be considered. The gang members portrayed grew up in horrendous circumstances, so how else would they turn out but violent, amoral, and psychopathic? The only character who is sympathetic at all is Kim Burgess. Her story is also the most coherent, easy to follow, and is somewhat redemptive at the end. Other than gangsters/thugs and Kim Burgess, well , there were CIA characters and government officials, and they are evil as well. The only other character is Sir Arthur Jennings, a ghost of a murdered politician who acts like a Greek chorus commenting on the events of the novel from the grave.
I don’t mind evil characters necessarily; they were interesting in the book. The main problem with the novel for me was how very, very difficult it was to understand what was going on. There are 75 characters, and the story is told from these characters alternating points of view. Events are not examined directly, but are fractured and referred to much later. The reader has to keep the characters straight and remember events from earlier in the book so that when they are tied in to other, related events later on, things finally begin to make sense. Clarity is elusive.
One example of this is the death of Josey Wales at the end. We see Dr. Love, a CIA consultant, talking to him in his prison cell. Dr. Love gives him some kind of pill that puts him to sleep or kills him, ostensibly to save him from the pain of his coming assassination? Or ? not totally clear. Then, a couple chapters later, we hear that Josey Wales was burned in his cell. I found that resolution somewhat unsatisfying. I suppose Dr. Love or the CIA or … someone… burned him. It’s like the main event is skipped after a big build up, and then only referred to later. The same method is used for the death of “the singer.” The whole first half of the book builds up to that event, but then the actual event itself is very foggy, muddied, and unclear. Then it is referred to tangentially through many small revelations later in the story. Again, clarity remains elusive. This technique seems overused throughout the book.
Another big problem with the book for me was the dialect and the language. The dialect and sometimes the character’s syntax is really hard to understand. One chapter was completely incomprehensible. I was reading AND listening at the same time, and it was just hard going the whole way through the book. Even when the characters were white men without a dialect, the method of writing only from that character’s point of view and usually as an interior monologue was often really difficult. Sometimes a character would have a conversation with another character, but you, the reader, only got to hear one side and wouldn’t get to know the other character’s name for many pages.
The writing was powerful at times. For example, hearing the inner thoughts of one of the very young assassins who is being buried alive…. Wow, that was horrendous and powerful at the same time. And the chapter where Weeper is having sex with a man and trying to convince himself that he is not a “faggot” was extremely graphic but interesting in a voyeuristic way.
The name of the book seems to derive from the seven men who were killed over the course of the book after the they attempted to assassinate “the singer, “ as well as the name of the article that the journalist, Mark Pierce, was writing for the New Yorker at the end, which was “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
I don’t really know if Jamaica has actually changed or not, but I like this quote from Kim Burgess in the book:
“Two years since the election,” she says. “Jamaica never gets worse or better, it just finds new ways to stay the same. You can’t change the country, but maybe you can change yourself.” Most of the characters in the book, however, don't ever think about changing… or think that they could change. They are victims as well: victims of their horrible circumstances. However, this possibility of change or movement is why, to me, Kim Burgess is the heart of the story. Only her character has any kind of positive resolution at the end, albeit only a hint of one.
I've been an Audible member for the past 10 years and this is simply, without a doubt, the best written and the best . . . well, narrated doesn't really do the character acting justice . . . the best read audio book I have listened to in all that time.
It's poetic and historic. It's vulgar and violent and beautiful. It's tragic and comic. But most importantly . . . it's so damned interesting and engaging.