John Crow’s Devil


Author: Marlon James

Finished on: 21 August 2016

Where did I get this book: This was the second purchase, and read, on the new kindle.

It is usual, when my daughter passes me engrossed in a book, for her to ask “Has anyone died yet mummy?”, “Was it disgusting?”, “How many murders so far?”

I love a gruesome story of death; delving into the dark side of human nature. The bleaker and more horrible the better. Or so I thought.

It seems that Marlon James has achieved the impossible. This book is so unremittingly bleak, that I think it may have been too bleak even for me. By the end I was exhausted.

John Crow’s Devil is a terrifying story of how organised religion, when the organisation is in the wrong hands, can turn into a vehicle for evil. So far, so my cup of tea. But James tells the story in such a way that no opportunity to be pessimistic or unsettling is passed up. The outlook of every character is individually bleak, and even a seemingly minor moment like someone leaving the house for the evening is an opportunity to be revolting.

Maybe this night he would stay away and she would watch the roaches and mice as they pillaged the table. Then they’d gnaw at her flesh and there she would still sit, waiting not out of faith, but because there was nothing else to do.

Reading this back now, I do love it. And James’s ability to create a world so consistently horrible is technically brilliant. From the downright nasty, to the comically weird, John Crow’s Devil is saturated in this atmosphere of the uncanny.

Him goin make the pickneys put on show right in the church! We no see so much excitement since Miss Fracas dog give birth to cat.

The inseparable Scottforth twins who no longer lived in the village had separated when both tried to marry the same goat.

It is the power of the writing makes the incessant bleakness so overwhelming. That same power to make you feel that you’re eating, sleeping and breathing the book that James achieves so successfully in A Brief History Of Seven Killings.

The story begins with an inept and alcoholic preacher being thrown out of his own church by a new charismatic ‘Apostle’, in the town of Gibbeah in Jamaica. As this Apostle strengthens his hold on the people of Gibbeah, events spiral into horror both man-made and supernatural. They find themselves convinced that extreme actions are required in order to ensure their town’s spiritual sanctity. It’s a horrible indictment of what people are capable of when they are frightened, and mob mentality takes over, not unlike that in The Summer That Melted Everything.

Apostle York himself is a stand out character in a book full of superbly nuanced, complicated and interesting characters.

He came like a thief on a night coloured silver. He came on two wheels, the muffler puffing a mist that made children cough in their sleep. As his motorcycle coursed up Brillo Road it left a serpentine trail of dust. There were no witnesses to his coming, save for an owl, the moon, and the Devil.

The more we get under his skin, the more terrifying he becomes. Gibbeah itself, the town over which he so successfully holds sway, is conjured up beautifully, and acts as the perfect setting for the unfolding horrors.

Gibbeah was bordered by a river, which swung around the village in a circle like a moat. The bridge was the only way in or out.

James effectively creates that world within itself; cut off from other civilisation, and about to get pretty uncivilised.

Maybe I found this book so overwhelming because I read it on holiday while I was unwell, so I did very little else for a couple of days. Maybe it is because of that amazing ‘full immersion’ quality that James’s writing has. Or maybe it’s because I happen to have read three books within a short space of time where the devil plays a major role.

Whatever the reason, while this book is undoubtedly a superbly effective telling of a powerful story, it left me feeling like I had had my fill of the darkness. Which is not like me at all.

Maybe I should move on to a Jilly Cooper, or something with a pink neon cover and gold embossed writing. Something to lighten the mood.


(Naaaah. I’ll get over it. Pass me Satan In St Mary’s.)



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