“A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Riverhead Books, $28.95), Marlon James’ epic novel about what he refers to as “post-post-colonial” Jamaica, is so thick with characters and voices that it induces feelings of disorientation similar to traveling to a foreign country for the first time.
To be sure, this documentary-style novel, whose story spins around the actual, attempted assassination of reggae legend Bob Marley in 1976, is by no means “brief” at 688 pages. And the gritty, socially tormented Jamaican society on display here is a far cry from the Caribbean island’s glitzy resorts.
James was a little boy in Jamaica in the 1970s when the island, a former British colony, was torn by political warfare, gang violence, extreme poverty and a general sense of social disintegration. He plunges us headfirst into the maelstrom.
Switching narrators at a furious pace, Marlon uses this incendiary backdrop to explore the lives of the colorful street criminals and gang lords who had a hand in the assassination attempt on Marley, referred to in this book simply as “The Singer.”
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These are not Jamaica’s winners, losers and shining lights. Marley, champion of peace and unity, went on to grace the dorm-room walls of many a college student in the United States, but the people who tried to kill him — the grunt workers, middlemen and pawns of history — largely faded into obscurity. The drug dealers, con artists, organized-crime dons, gang enforcers, prostitutes, addicts and suffering girlfriends who are not named in any textbook fill these pages, as do the corrupt politicians, shady cops and American CIA operatives who manipulate them for their own ends.
Jamaican life, as detailed here in both proper English and heavy island patois spoken in the first person, is horrible on an almost cartoonish level. Gangsters like Papa-Lo, Josey Wales, Funky Chicken, Dishrag and Shotta Sherrif would be memorable for their monikers alone.
Everybody is a user of one kind or another. And everybody is being used.
Optimism is in short supply here, save for the hope by some of resettling to Jamaican enclaves in the United States. Brutal opportunism rules. As James makes clear, these are not the type of people who wait and see if fate will favor them. Always on the prowl for the next big score, always wary of what might be lurking around the corner, they “see and wait.”
The gangland, Rasta man drama of it all is enticing enough, but thankfully James is not content with delivering a juicy story about modern Jamaican history, starring one of music’s most iconic singer-songwriters.
Among the unknowns in this book who get their day in his spotlight, none is more moving than the young gangster Bam-Bam, who speaks about watching his father and mother murdered right in front of him.
Talk about a formative experience.
In “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” tragedy seems to come full-circle as acts of horrendous violence beget more violence. While Marley sings of “one love,” his countrymen are tearing each other apart.
And for what? Not even the Rolling Stone journalist who visits the island to report on the grim, convoluted state of affairs in Jamaica (the title of the reporter’s story is where the novel’s title comes from), can fully make sense of it all.
Writing this dense requires dedication and focus on the part of the reader. It’s easy to get tripped up by the shifting of voices and narrators as James careens through Jamaica’s modern history.
James’ use of island dialect only adds to the difficulty of following the story. His approach is both thrilling and infuriating. But this is history as it actually unfolds — messy, multifaceted and full of loose ends.
Marley and the countless Jamaican musicians of his generation who never found stardom left a musical legacy that has enriched pop music the world over. With “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” we learn why their go-to themes of love, togetherness and justice resonated so deeply with them.
The rhapsodic tension and violence of the society that spawned these artists are not easy to look at, but in the hands of a writer like James, it’s impossible to look away.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.