BookBrowse Reviews A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon Jones

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A Brief History of Seven Killings

by Marlon Jones

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon Jones X
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon Jones
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 704 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2015, 784 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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A lyrical, inventive and stunningly ambitious epic that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.

Look beyond the headlines. What do you see? Clarity of vision can rarely be gained by a news clip, however affecting it might be. To get at the truth, one needs to dig deeper and appreciate nuance. Marlon James' mesmerizing A Brief History of Seven Killings, does just that. It's a brilliant exploration of the factors behind a singular snapshot of time in December 1976: the assassination attempt on reggae star and Jamaican sensation, Bob Marley.

Narrated from the viewpoint of an expansive cast of characters - from Kingston ganglords, writers, CIA operatives, and more - the novel pulls back the curtain and presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic picture of Jamaica in the '70s. It also tracks down the seven primary players involved in the crime, years down the line, all the way to the United States where many of them immigrated. Among the many memorable characters are Josey Wales and Papa-Lo (rival gang lords) and Nina Burgess, who will resurface over and over again as she attempts to flee a troubled past and reinvent herself every time.

"I hate politics," Nina says of her life, clinging on to the middle class in Kingston, "I hate that just because I live here I'm supposed to live politics. And there's nothing you can do. If you don't live politics, politics will live you." It is a telling synthesis of life in a Kingston beset by extreme gang violence, with factions owing allegiance to Jamaica's opposing parties fighting for territorial power of the capital city: the JLP (Jamaica Labor Party) and the PNP (People's National Party). Who were the real manipulators behind the puppet strings? Even if the locals are lead to believe that the "United States government does not support or condone any illegal or disruptive action of any kind in sovereign territories that are her neighbors," those words fool no one. The left-leaning PNP, supposedly friendly with Cuba, is offset by American fueling of the more conservative JLP. James captures the political tension succinctly: "The general election is in two weeks. The CIA is squatting on the city, its lumpy ass leaving the sweat print of the Cold War." Bob Marley, widely known as a PNP sympathizer, was a ready target and an easy way to focus international attention on the country's chaos. Seven Killings eventually moves from the Jamaica of the '70s to the United States of the '80s and '90s, where the Kingston gang lords moved to set up notorious drug gangs (see Beyond the Book.)

Seven Killings is a rich fictional historical account of the violent underbelly of a country's politics. Many of the characters speak in Jamaican patois, which makes for slow reading at least initially: "First they drive we out of the jobs we get only four years before. Then them two boy start drive we out of town, like we is varmint and they is Wyatt Earp." Seven Killings is not for readers who shy away from violence, bullets ring out almost every few pages. But the patient reader is rewarded with, among other things, loads of humor and sparkling dialog.

One of the many strengths of Seven Killings is its resolute insistence on authenticity. It is obvious that James has no patience for tired cliches about Jamaica (you won't find the word mon here, except as ironic device). It's perhaps one of the reasons the narrative is equipped with such a diversity of voices and points of view. Piece them all together and you get something entirely breathtaking and maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of truth. Sure, there are more than seven killings here. And this novel definitely isn't brief. There are also times when one needs a break from the chorus of voices, each competing for your attention. Nevertheless, A Brief History Of Seven Killings is an astounding achievement. Think Jamaica is all turquoise water beaches and cheery pastel-colored bungalows? Well, think again.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in November 2014, and has been updated for the September 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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