A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Set mostly in late 1970s, early 1980s Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a smoking mountain of a book whose characters live in a present that turns historical fiction into living history.

In 1976 Bob Marley, always referred to as The Singer in the novel, is about to sing in a peace concert, trying to unite the ghetto factions in Kingston to create a united front against external tyranny, to try and channel the internalised rage of poverty outwards, right before the general election.

But not everyone thinks his peace is the answer to Jamaica’s problems and after an initial opening channelled through a dead white politician whose lyrical descriptions of death hold a kind of justice in them (‘Living people wait and see because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait.’ p.3), the novel focuses on the days leading up to an assassination attempt on The Singer. What motivated the attack? Who followed it through? What implications did it have for those involved and for Jamaica and the wider world?

Told through the voices of several different characters from ghetto, uptown, America and beyond, all involved in some way in that day in 1976, we follow the various routes to and from that day until we reach the 1990s. Throughout it all The Singer remains the only silent character, a kind of vacuum around whom the others gravitate trying to enforce their own vision for their future or the future of Jamaica. It’s an impressive and, at times, exhausting feat.

Though a true epic in size as well as scope, it comes as no surprise to read that Faulkner and Marguerite Duras are mentioned as inspirations for how to structure this novel in Marlon James’ acknowledgements. This isn’t just a book full of research, this is a book full of people whose voices feel distinct and whose words can reach out and mesmerise – even when I struggled with the Jamaican English its rhythms began inflecting my thoughts. There are moments that it’s hard to forget, such as when one of the ghetto characters, Bam-Bam, gets his first gun:

‘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 a gun talk to the owner too, telling him first that you can never own this, that outside is plenty people who don’t have a gun but know you do, and one night they going come like Nicodemus and take it. Nobody ever own a gun. You don’t know that until you own one. If somebody give it to you, that somebody can take it back. Another man can think is for him even when he seeing that is you control it. And he don’t sleep until he get it ‘cause he can’t sleep. Gun hunger is worse that woman hunger for at least maybe a woman might hungry for you back. At night me don’t sleep. Me stay up in the dark shadow, looking at it, rubbing it, seeing and waiting.’ p. 72

The waiting that Sir Arthur George Jennings (the ghost politician) talks about in the opening chapter finds many repercussions throughout the book. Gangs and posses, runaways, spies, people in prison, all of them are either waiting to get out or waiting for their past to catch up with them. Tension is everywhere. No one seems to have unrestricted time. None of these characters are free. What might that mean anyway?

The last chapter offers hope to one of the characters. This hope is the possibility for redemption in which freedom becomes the ability to chose, without fearing for your life, to connect, to make meaningful, honest relationships, but this is just one character and we aren’t privy to the outcome.

I’m glad A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker 2015 because it’s a novel we should all be reading and talking about. It’s not always a pretty read, it’s not an easy read, but it’s a novel that speaks new stories into old tropes.

Next week (or rather this week…) I’m reading Gatekeeper by Kay Sexton.