1976. Seven gunmen storm Bob Marley’s house, machine guns blazing. The reggae superstar survives, but the gunmen are never caught.
“At some point you gotta expand on a story,” says journalist Alex Pierce in the penultimate chapter of A Brief History of Seven Killings. “You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope.” Well, if scope is what Marlon James was going for with his 2015 Man Booker winner, scope is certainly what he got– setting the attempted assassination of Bob Marley against the backdrop of Kingston gangland politics, CIA intervention and the Pan-American drugs trade, any more scope and this novel would burst at the seams.
In terms of the writing, Brief History is a masterful novel. At his best Marlon James wields the English language like he invented it, weaving together the story of some 75 characters over fourteen years from a stream-of-consciousness style that reads so naturally it feels as if you’re the one telling the story. With more than a dozen different first-person voices employed throughout the novel – ranging from gangsters and drug lords to journalists, CIA agents and even the dead – it would be so easy for Brief History to either muddle itself up or collapse under its own weight; but James somehow keeps the structure afloat by writing each narrator with the utmost respect for their character. Regardless of role or importance to the story, every one of these voices carries with it past grudges, and future hopes, key beliefs and hidden facets – all the nuances needed to give a character the impression of existing beyond the boundaries of their pages.
Admittedly, this stop-start, multi-voice narrative is a little tough to gel with at first, but once you lock in it becomes all too clear why this book has won so much praise; James’ lucid, sensory style is so immersive you can feel it clinging to you long after you’ve closed the book, like oil on your hands or an old smell under your nose. The rhythm of the Jamaican dialect in particular gets so thoroughly under your skin that it sometimes takes a conscious act to shake it off. James’ writing is pervasive, perverse and far from pleasant, but that’s exactly what James’ Jamaica needs.
But as much as I admire the way Brief History was put together, it’s hard to ignore that this was also an incredibly difficult read. Leaving aside the fact that many of the novel’s pivotal scenes take it down some truly uncomfortable avenues, there were plenty of times when the intricate plot and sprawling cast left me feeling more than a little lost. I felt there was a very precise balance to reading this book that I never quite found; somewhere between taking it slow enough that its heaviness doesn’t become overwhelming, and keeping up enough pace that it doesn’t leave you behind.
Although A Brief History of Seven Killings can sometimes feel like a novel overshadowed by its own ambitious concept, it takes more than that to detract from the unflinching poetry of Marlon James’ writing. Definitely not a casual read, but definitely not one to be ignored.