Another 2nd reading! This is getting exhausting because these are dense and complex novels I’m rereading.) But I’ll want to remember better for a discussion and then I’ll get drawn into the book (“sucked into the book” is the better phrase here) because I didn’t really understand some aspects the first time round – or they’re striking me anew – or it’s like revisiting old friends except in this case it’s really, really gritty violent. But I was surprised by how much I’d forgot and I was also impressed by having usually put the highlight in the right places.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
by Marlon James
2014 / 688 pages
Read by a great “cast” (read and listened)
Rating: 9.5 / literary crime/historical
A Brief History of Seven Killings is basically an incredibly well written but heavily fictionalized version of the assassination attempt on the life of Bob Marley (known as “the Singer” in the book). That was in December, 1976, but the story stretches and expands and develops from just prior to that event in December 1976 to some time in 1991 (or later) when the last of the perpetrators is dealt with. From page 671:
“Well, at some point you gotta expand on a story. You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope. Shit doesn’t just happen in a void, there’re ripples and consequences and even with all that there’s still a whole fucking world going on, whether you’re doing something or not. Or else it’s just a report of some shit that happened somewhere and you can get that from nightly news.”
So in spreading out his story, James has covered quite a lot. The narrative is heavily (!) saturated with the gritty gang-land relationships as well as international drug crime and the politics of the times and place. It’s also a book of how and when Marley’s peace project failed and how a few of the drug cartels got to the New York markets. – This is not a book for the faint of heart.
As a sort of prologue, the first chapter is narrated by the ghost of Sir Arthur George Jennings, murdered previously, but as a part of the gang-political warfare. I’m not usually a fan of literary “ghosts” unless they’re done really well – The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) or Beloved (Toni Morrison). I really enjoyed Jennings’ parts – good book, good ghost.
The narrative is laid out in five Parts dealing with different time frames. Within each Part are many sections in which different characters explain their points of view, usually in a stream of consciousness narrative. Fortunately there is a character list at the beginning of the Kindle version.
Serious gangland crime and violence permeate the gang-ridden neighborhoods but the leaders are long-time residents and know each other. They have always been tied to the political structure helping to elect their candidates to high positions. Problems start when it the world gets involved, the US, others? It’s all connected to the political scene of Jamaica – in fact, the warring parties of the political scene drives much of the violence. The CIA is involved because the communists may be making inroads in Jamaica circa 1976 – along with the drug cartels from South America and the guns from Cuba and more – Who is that Syrian guy? It’s a mess. All this and a reporter from the Rolling Stone magazine is there. The scope of the story is revealed rather slowly and the tension builds and builds as people start being killed. Fortunately, Nina Burgess manages to create some breathing room for the reader – she has her problems with violence for awhile but her character changes as she lives through her fears.
The writing is awesome stream of consciousness from inside the heads of so many characters – or sometimes they’re actually talking to someone – different ways of doing it. But we never hear the interior voice of Singer, which is a really powerful absence. Very intense stuff.
Of the characters I think I have to say I enjoyed Nina the most – all her difficulties and the changes she went through while trying to keep her sense of humor and improving her lot.
The violence was hard for me to take in places – the stream of consciousness as the first person is being buried alive, or shooting someone, is horrendous. I don’t usually care for that much graphic detail but if it’s well enough written I can do it. Blood Meridian is a wonderfully well written book (1 solid 10) and it’s got pretty close to the same level of violence. The Cartel by Don Winslow is also horrifically violent (Mexican drug cartel fiction) but it also works – for me anyway.
Lots more out there – almost all raves.