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Novel Review: ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Three years later, Marlon James’ brilliant take on a tumultuous 1970s Jamaica remains to be the benchmark for cacophonous writing in historical fiction.

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This written encapsulation of a bloody 70s Jamaica is the third novel by Marlon James, a native Jamaican himself. A Brief History of Seven Killings represents an extraordinary leap in writing prowess – third time’s the charm right? That is not to say that James did not provide a sense of intrigue in his first novels, John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women. The former representing hardly two centuries worth of pages, and introducing the author as an interesting pen, marketing himself as a fresh take on the traditional perceptions of Jamaican and Caribbean local writers. What we know Caribbean culture to be in the West; warm weather, happy music, comical mischief, a la “good vibes”, is effectively flipped to reveal its ugly underbelly and immense dark and bloody history for the time period that is represented.

This is shown by his incredible literary leap in his second novel, The Book of Night Women. Literary power and lyricism shine in this piece, introducing the slave narrative in an unthinkable and interesting pace of plot, character development, and language. The undertone of the novel remains true to the Jamaican dialect, but would also shine a spotlight onto James as an international literary phenomenon.

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His exponential growth has led him to his third novel and Man Booker Prize 2015 Winner. A Brief History of Seven Killings, tells the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, for the sake of anonymity is referred to as “the singer”. It tells of this incident as the initial trigger for the aftermath that would come to set the narrative tone of Jamaica in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Guns and ammunition start flooding into the nation, CIA agents take up room and board, and the little island nation suddenly goes through one of the most tumultuous and bloody defining moments in its history.

A difficult read by all standards, especially if you are already familiar with James’s previous novels, A Brief History, however, does not quite hit you with a single narrative voice, but rather a stop and start exoskeleton – reiterating its impressive ambition and accolade.

Cacophony is the buzzword for this novel, with an incorporation of so much mixed buzz in voices, coming together almost as an orchestra, with James as its conductor.

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The overall cast of the novel is large and robust – with about 75 total characters all chiming in and out at various points of the novel to tell their stories – eventually coming together in a beautiful caricature display of a variety of Jamaican experiences both local and parochial.

Copenhagen City, an invented ghetto procured from the mind of James, provides the reader with a home base where most of the major events in the novel take place. All though the name of the ghetto is merely an invention, its overall makeup takes elements from urban sprawls of places such as Kingston, Gaza, Tel Aviv, and Angola. These areas are represented within the conflict that exists in Jamaica during this time, but also shed light and reflect on conflict occurring in a wider world.

The irony behind these names of locales like Copenhagen City, as well as a mention of neighbouring ghettos under the moniker of names such as Tivoli Gardens, show the opposite of the peaceful inspiration behind these city names. These locations in the novel turn into killing fields, a far cry from what these locations actually represent.

James has an uncanny ability to amalgamate the international with the national focus in his novels, and A Brief History is no different. Represented through the incredibly robust and complex character of Josey Wales, cacophony is does not only exist within the interactions between characters, but within the character itself, singularly.

Josey Wales: “I don’t tell him that yo tengo suficiente español para concocer que eres la más gran broma en Sudamérica. I chat to him bad like some bush naigger and ask dumb question like, So everybody in America have gun? What kinda bullet American fire? Why you don’t transfer Dirty Harry to the Jamaican branch? hee hee hee.” – in response to his first meeting with the CIA

Three years later, as both a review and reflection piece, Marlon James’s growth has been such a treat to follow. His imaginative prowess ever more consistent. No more comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, no more comparisons to Toni Morrison; not a brief history, not just seven killings, but rather experiences within a scope that will have you gasp many more times than that. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a must read that will have its audience experience a level of aesthetics related to cacophony and violence that can offer no comparison.

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