Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

“Eh, what do you really think you know about the Central Peace Council? I bet you didn’t know that it was a joke. Peace. Only one kind of peace can ever come down the ghetto. It’s really simple, so simple even a retarded man can catch the drift. Even a white man. The second you say peace this and peace that, and let’s talk about peace, is the second gunman put down their guns. But guess what, white boy. As soon as you put down your gun the policeman pull out his gun. Dangerous thing, peace. Peace make you stupid. You forget that not everybody sign peace treaty. Good times bad for somebody.”

Violence in literature is something with which I have a tricky relationship. It seems that humanity has never entirely evaded its ‘violence as spectacle’ mentality – where once crowds trotted out to witness public punishments and executions, we now live out this voyeurism through our television and cinema screens. Parallel to the rise of increasingly graphic televisations of violence has been a clear impact on the way that fiction is written. Although violence has always existed in literature – Bill Sykes hanging himself in Oliver Twist has been imprinted on my memory since I first read the book – there was typically a degree of greying down the more brutal details of violent acts, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the violence itself be always in service to a larger narrative arc. Contemporary fiction seems more concerned with shock value, leading us to a gratuitousness that can feel misplaced in works that would be better off were these encounters eradicated from the plot. When a book promises violence, therefore, I am usually sceptical of its ability to deliver this angle in a way that retains realism, without feeling like competitive overindulgence in attempts to make the reader as uncomfortable as possible.

When I read Marlon James’ new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, at the start of February, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book was its management of violence. It is a novel premised on brutality – its consequences, cycles, and the subsequent demands placed on both victim and perpetrator. James managed to balance the centrality of violence and some incredibly graphic descriptions of its execution with an assurance that the acts are always in service to the narrative a large. The same is true of the author’s celebrated 2014 publication – winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize – A Brief History of Seven Killings. The novel had been on my radar for some time, as was true for just about anyone reading books around the time of its release. Yet it was only after reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf – an obvious departure from James’ previous more historically-focussed works – that I decided to throw myself into the 700-page epic, A Brief History of Seven Killings, in an effort to understand James’ ability to play with violence across genres.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is an astounding account of Jamaica across three decades. Using the assassination attempt against Bob Marley – referred to in the novel as simply ‘the Singer’ – as its narrative compass point, the story is a wide-ranging examination of Jamaican society and politics in a period of post-colonial, Cold War violence. Told from the perspectives of multiple narrators – including two ghetto dons, a CIA agent, and a dead man – the ambition of A Brief History of Seven Killings is as much in its structure as in its scope. While the story certainly works to fill the gaps in knowledge left open by the assassination attempt against Marley – a crime for which, in real life, the perpetrators were not officially found – James uses this plot point as the door through which to lay bare the larger ruptures in Jamaican society during the ’70s and ’80s. Fed by the purposeful instability of CIA allegiances and practices, as well as inter-ghetto peace attempts and international drug cartels, this is a novel steeped in realised and threatened violence. It is a masterful work that plays with language and location to highlight the chasms created by both social unrest and the forceful penetration of covert US activities characteristic of the Cold War.

“The thing I should have said, the thing I wanted to say, is that it’s not the crime that bothers me. I mean, it bothers me like it bothers anybody. Like how inflation bothers me. I don’t really experience it but I know it’s affecting me. It’s not the actual crime that makes me want to leave, it’s the possibility that it can happen any time, any second now, even in the next minute. That it might never happen at all, but I’ll think it will happen any second now for the next ten years. Even if it never comes, the point is I’ll be waiting for it and the wait is just as bad because you can’t do anything else in Jamaica but wait for something to happen to you. This applies to good stuff too. It never happens. All you have is the waiting for it.”

A Brief History of Seven Killings is not an unexacting read. It opens with a 76 character cast list, while the narrative itself juggles between the perspectives of 12 different narrators. The satisfaction that James finds in playing with multiple voices is obvious, not least in the clear indulgence – albeit to the gratification of the reader – of the multi-perspective ambition of his new Dark Star Trilogy. There is, however, an effort to reading A Brief History of Seven Killings that felt absent from the fantastical fabulism of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The book is dense with characters, relationships, and events, complicated further by dialectic changes that present a challenge to anyone unversed in the linguistic turns of Jamaican dialogue. That one is expected to work for the payoffs is not a bad thing. Although partially fictionalised – the ghettos mentioned in the novel are fictional creations, as are (in large part) the events behind the Marley assassination attempt – James has populated his 1970s Jamaica with all the complexity deserved of a nation grappling with colonial legacies and the power vacuums exploited by the wealthy and influential. That James is able to capture so much in just 700 pages – in a narrative that also strays outside of Jamaica and into Miami and Brooklyn – is a testament to his abilities.

The promise of violence – a guarantee, given the novel’s title – is viscerally delivered. Indeed, the assassination attempt against Marley is one of the least palpably stomach-churning moments in the book. The novel opens with a dead politician – the British Sir Arthur George Jennings – accounting for the events of his demise. Described in a similar vein to the ghostly inhabitants of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Jennings’ ghost carries the almost comical weight of his death, with a head that rolls constantly backwards to reflect the corpse’s broken neck. That the story opens with the dead – and a reminder from Jennings that “dead people never stop talking” – sets the scene for the violence that populates A Brief History of Seven Killings. Descriptions of a public lynching and a burial alive – told from the perspectives of the victims – are undoubtedly the novel’s most troubling chapters, and the parts that I most struggled to read. As with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, however, James’ most graphic moments avoid gratuitousness in their obvious service to the narrative.

Yet more troubling than these moments of profound violence are the threats of brutality that exist everywhere. This component of far-reaching social discord is expertly rendered in the voice of Nina Burgess – the novel’s only female narrator. While the novel certainly could have spent more time exploring the perspectives of characters on the fringes of the violence – women tend to get a look-in only as the wives or girlfriends of the various gang members – James captures the life-altering fear of threatened violence in Nina’s experiences. One of the most powerful moments of the novel is Nina’s ominous car trip with two policemen, who have offered to escort her home after curfew:

“I can’t imagine anything worse than waiting for a rape. If you had time to wait on it, you must have had time to stop it. If you’re not for sale, don’t advertise, my high school principal is saying at this very moment.

You’re already thinking past the rape, to the longer dresses you will buy, the stocking that will reach just above the knee and make you look old, dresses with frilly collars like I’m in the opening credits for Little House on the fucking Prairie. I’ll stop processing my hair and shaving my legs and armpits. Stop wearing lipstick. Go back to shoes with no heels and marry a man from Swallowfield Church who is willing to be patient with me, a dark man who will balance everything against my giving him light-skinned children and still think he got himself a bargain. You want to scream stop the fucking car and take the fucking pussy and be done with it, because that sounds tough, like it’s almost tough enough to scare them a little but you know words like that could never come from a mouth like yours. It’s not that you have the decency, not a r’ass, it’s that you don’t have the nerve. And that just makes you hate these goddamn police even more, the way they treat you like a bird to their cat. Maybe this is like a man digging his own grave, seeing the end already and just waiting on the middle, the it, the thing that supposed to happen.”

A Brief History of Seven Killings excels both in the graphically violent and in the moments between violence, where threat exists. It is in those spaces – Nina’s expectation of rape or the young gang member who hides in his mother’s cupboard for two years for fear of retaliation – that the character’s thoughts and actions are most telling. It is also these moments in which James is most insightful. Where violence threatens but is not directly present, the author is able to explore the cycles – both personal and political – that led Jamaica to the ghetto warfare that he describes. Battles over representation, money, and influence are rife, with a systemic brutality portrayed as much in cultural misunderstandings as actual physical violence. Josey Wales – deliberately dumbing himself down for the satisfaction of a CIA agent, who shows him a colouring book to teach him about anarchy – best portrays the subtle violence of these cultural chasms. The way that James plays with language – which is highlighted throughout the novel as key to both political movements and social status – is one of A Brief History of Seven Killing‘s most enlightening and well-executed elements.

Having read A Brief History of Seven Killings, coupled with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it is abundantly clear that Marlon James is an author of almost limitless talent. That he is able to cross genres and dwell in new places with complete ease is a skill rarely seen. His strength is undoubtedly in his ability to navigate complex voices and environments, centred around a singular narrative compass point from which a breathtakingly expansive exploration of space and character is able to take place. This kind of talent is a rarity and one that I have yet to see executed with the confident willingness to allow both characters and violence to speak for themselves, except in Marlon James.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

 

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