A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, BY MARLON JAMES
It’s not often that the winner of the Man Booker Prize is lauded as one of the best novels of the year. So I started this novel with trepidation, only to be drawn in and hooked. Unashamedly stealing a technique perfected in Faulkner’s classic “As I Lay Dying” this novel uses multiple narrators to describe events before, during and after the attempted murder of Bob Marley during a terrible pre-election period of gang violence in Jamaica in 1976. The storytellers range from barely articulate child gangsters, to a hippy Rolling Stone journalist who becomes the novel’s unlikely antihero, to the ghost of a murdered politician whose voice accompanies key deaths in the novel, including that of Marley himself, who, having escaped assassination, died of cancer in 1981.
Any novel requiring a cast of characters after the title page is bound to make the reader think it’ll be overly complex. But, as in Hilary Mantel’s two recent Booker winners, and of course the novels of Dickens, the huge cast makes the novel rich but not overly complex. The dialogue is sharper than I’ve read in years, and is funny and witty as well as gleefully obscene (I’d forgotten quite how gloriously un-PC and dirty Jamaican swearing actually is).
The characters are what really make this novel great. Over a dozen narrators interact with getting on for a hundred brilliantly-drawn actors. And the author manages the trick of making us feel for everyone, from the drug-crazed child assassin Bam-Bam (who has a scene of almost unbearable pathos about a third of the way in), to the psychopathic “Josey Wales”, whose job it was to assassinate Bob Marley at the behest of just about every political and criminal group in Jamaica and outside (the CIA figure hugely in a novel whose background consists of the perceived threat of Communism in the island).
It’s an unashamedly serious novel that had me laughing out loud. The last author whose work did that was Dickens.