Bob Marley at center of A Brief History of Seven Killings

by Steve Mitchell


Contests are great. Contests extend the conversation. We love to weigh in with our favorites, argue the results. In the case of book prizes, they bring the conversation past the book, which is where it should be. Sometimes we like to keep our book conversations private, just between us and the author, but it’s in a broader dialogue that a book can really flourish. For all the tinny bells and whistles and false drama, contests can be positive in the sense that they bring artists into a broader public awareness.

I’d planned to write a review of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings before it won the Man Booker Prize. It’s a sprawling novel of many first person voices, rooted in a culture I knew little about. A fictional account woven into history, it allows those involved to tell us what happened and how they felt about it in their own words. Some of these people are ghosts, they were murdered before or during the events of the book, others are on their way to being ghosts. A few survive.

A Brief History of Seven Killings takes place primarily in Jamaica in 1976, a time of social unrest leading up to the attempted assassination of reggae singer and Rastafarian icon Bob Marley, called ‘The Singer’ in the book. We hear the voices of low-level gangsters and their bosses, CIA operatives, a British filmmaker, and a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s about a moment of hope, Marley’s first Peace Concert, when he had engineered a truce between Jamaica’s warring factions and seemed poised to bring the country together. It’s about what happens when that moment is lost.

Much like the TV Series Deadwood, it’s also about the hidden bedrock of capitalism, where thugs enforce a social order because the government is too disinterested to do so and a few men with enough guns can take enough to begin to establish themselves as model citizens. There’s Papa-Lo, the ‘don’ of Copenhagen City, just one of the slums of Kingston, and his lieutenant, Josey Wales. Papa-Lo is old school, harsh, benevolent, but weakening, while Josey Wales has a near sociopathic focus. There’s Nina Burgess, who only wants to procure visas and get herself and her parents out of Jamaica before they’re murdered.

The first person voice of each character gives Marlon James the space to be undramatic and it’s in the everyday violence and fear, the mundane use of force, the economic desperation of the people that this novel really excels. I’ve never read a book that brought me closer to the mind of a ghetto youth who picks up a gun, for whom a gun is the only possible instrument. Bam Bam says:

“When a gun come to live in the house the woman you live with treat you different, not cold, but now she weigh word, measure it before talking to you. But the gun talk to the owner too”¦Nobody ever own a gun. You don’t know that until you own one”¦Gun hunger worse than woman hunger for at least maybe a woman might hungry for you back.”

Because the book is told in the individual language of internal dialogue, it sings in strange and beautiful rhythms. The style is much like listening to tracks from a Black Uhuru album interrupted now and then by a white DJ trying to be hip. These DJs are usually ghosts or ‘ghosts’, CIA operatives in country clandestinely. They talk a lot but they don’t say much. At least Papa-Lo, Josey Wales, and Nina Burgess understand the ghetto. These ghosts understand even less. There’s too much at stake and too many players and if it all goes wrong the operatives will simply move on to Nicaragua or Beirut.

This isn’t a world that believes in its own rules. The rules are constantly changing, for the gangsters, for the CIA, even for The Singer. This world is only ever trying to manipulate or intimidate.

The Singer, that is, Bob Marley, is the moral center here, but he doesn’t have a direct voice in the story and he’s too removed from the people who share with us. Yet he’s a vibrant symbol for them, of hope or naivetè, of change or the impossibility of it.

The restrictions of first person narrative give the events a vital immediacy.

We feel the adrenaline and fear, the hope and disgust, the mounting excitement as the Peace Concert approaches.

It has its drawbacks too, as occasionally a character has to spend a little too much time filling in the backstory for us. Generally, James excels at this but now and then the seams show. Additionally, the drama and energy leading up to the concert and assassination attempt is so high that it takes the book a while to find a new rhythm once it moves on.

These are minor quibbles. It’s the characters who are important here, their ragged hope, their will to survive. It’s in the way they see a future, if they see one at all. Marlon James gives them dark and compelling voice. There are big ideas here too, about colonialism and greed, revenge and justice. A Brief History of Seven Killings gives us a lot to talk about and, hopefully, the Man Booker Prize extends that conversation just a little bit further. !