A Brief History Of Seven Killings

Brief

Author: Marlon James

Finished on: 17 July 2016

Where did I get this book: Given to me by a friend having a book clear out (a what?)

This book is incredible. It is one of the best examples I can remember to illustrate that George RR Martin quote.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.

I am a white English lady who lives in a village in the green and pleasant Hope Valley (where crime is so very not rife that they call a parish council meeting if someone draws a cock and balls on a bus shelter – heinous indeed). But when I read this book I was a Jamaican gangster living in the ghetto hooked on heroin who would do anything, including kill, for my next fix. I could feel the hot sun and the tension, smell the guns, hear the Singer’s music… I would look up from the pages (only when I absolutely had to) and have a moment of genuine “Where am I?” disorientation looking at the green, leafy world around me.

I used to teach full immersion English courses to Italian students, the idea being they would have to learn some English as they were relentlessly exposed to it with no opportunity to retreat back into their native tongue. This book is full immersion in the dark side of Jamaica.

There’s a reason why the story of the ghetto should never come with a photo. The Third World slum is a nightmare that defies belief or facts, even the ones staring right at you. A vision of hell that twists and turns on itself and grooves to its own soundtrack. Normal rules do not apply here. Imagine then, dream, fantasy. You visit a ghetto, particularly a ghetto in West Kingston, and it immediately leaves the real to become this sort of grotesque, something out of Dante or the infernal painting of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a rusty red chamber of hell that cannot be described so I will not try to describe it. It cannot be photographed because some parts of West Kingston, such as Rema, are in the grip of such bleak and unremitting repulsiveness that the inherent beauty of the photographic process will lie to you about just how ugly it really is.

(And that passage carries on being that good. And on. I don’t know where to stop).

James’s mastery of language, including several different Jamaican dialects, is impressive. He is interested not only in the variations between how people of different classes, and from different places, speak. But also how these dialects change over the decades we follow the story. His characters talk about language a lot too: what the way you speak says about you in the different echelons of Jamaican society. Much of his writing is dense and luxurious; it’s not always easy to read, but it reminded me of Hilary Mantel in some sections where you just dive in and swim around in the words. Luscious.

A Brief History Of Seven Killings tells the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, and its consequences for a diverse range of characters involved to varying extents. The first person narration from so many perspectives is dizzying, and inevitably some of the voices are more engaging than others. But without exception they are multi-dimensional and interesting. Even a ‘baddie’ makes observations as beautiful as:

What is peace? Peace is me blowing a little breeze on my daughter forehead when she sweat in her sleep.

As a whole it reminded me of The Wire (series four of which I still think is the finest television ever made) in that you see the perspectives of the ‘good’, the ‘bad’, the powerful, the completely disenfranchised; you see the bigger picture and the tiny detail.

You will feel like you have lived with these characters in their rusty red chamber of hell for the time it takes you to read this book. It is wonderful. And a much cheaper way to live a whole different life for a while than buying plane tickets to Jamaica, a gun and lots of heroin.

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