- Hardcover: 704 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1 edition (October 2, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 159448600X
- ISBN-13: 978-1594486005
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 556 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #147,584 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel Hardcover – October 2, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2014: This is a book that I did not expect to enjoy. Having finished it—and feeling, as I do now, that A Brief History of Seven Killings is one of the best books I’ve read all year—I went back and identified the reasons why I did not expect to like it. Reason #1— The story is an oral history told in multiple voices: that’s true, but James’ enormous talent makes the multiple voices work. Reading the novel is an immersive experience—the characters are real, they are engaging, and James uses them to look at all sides of the story. Yes, the multiple points-of-view are difficult at first, but each voice quickly distinguishes itself as unique and important; the payoff is a novel of sweeping scope and emotion. Reason #2—Many of the characters speak in Jamaican patois: like many readers, I’m not a big fan of dialect on the page. Tell me what they say, not necessarily how they say it. But James pulls it off with remarkable ease. I expected the patois to start to grate once I got further into the book. It never did. The language only added to my understanding of the story and its characters. Reason #3—Violence: this is not an easy book, particularly when it comes to violence. It starts early, and there’s a lot of it (certainly more than seven killings). But it’s there for a reason. By showing the violence, the poverty, and the struggle to survive in 70s Jamaica, James illustrates how the ghetto can change a person. Over time, we see how every man and woman is changed. Reason #4 –It’s about Jamaica: I hesitate to admit that I wasn’t initially interested in a book set in Jamaica. Am I just not interested in a world so different from mine? Whatever the underlying reason, I was wrong to think that way. I could take the easy route and say that this novel is about something more than Jamaica, but that seems obvious. All I can say is: these people were real to me. And like all great novels, James’ work drew me in, entertained me, and changed me in ways I could not have anticipated. –Chris Schluep
“How to describe Marlon James’s monumental new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings? It’s like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja. It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting—a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“It will come to be seen as a classic of our times…that’s what judges of the prestigious Man Booker Prize have said about this year’s winner.”
“An astonishing portrait of the politics of everyday life…Just as he is sharply aware of the nuances of their voices, James has the confidence not to deny his characters their humanity by turning them into moral exemplars, nor paper over the infected wounds that score across the country by suggesting that the loveliness of some of its territory makes up for the savage effects of poverty.”
—The Washington Post
“As deep and wide-reaching as they come.”
“A dark, challenging, and violent book that's also remarkably funny, A Brief History of Seven Killings appears to have been an easy choice for the judges, who voted unanimously to award it the [Booker] prize in a deliberation which lasted less than two hours.”
—The New Republic
“This is the boldest of novels, and the boldest of Booker-winning novels, thanks to a jury bold enough to pick it.”
“[A] tour de force… [an] audacious, demanding, inventive literary work.”
—Wall Street Journal
“An extraordinary book… [It was] very exciting, very violent, full of swearing. It was a book we didn’t actually have any difficulty deciding on – it was a unanimous decision, a little bit to our surprise. … The call was easy but the distance was small…There are many, many voices in the book and it just kept on coming, it kept on doing what it was doing. … There is an excitement right from the beginning of this book. A lot of it is very, very funny, a lot of it very human.”
—Michael Wood, Chair of the Judges for the 2015 Man Booker Prize
“Thrilling, ambitious…Both intense and epic.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
“A prismatic story of gang violence and Cold War politics in a turbulent post-independence Jamaica.”
—The New Yorker
“Marlon James' latest novel is a Jamaican symphony, a sea of distinct and unforgettable voices.”
—St. Paul Pioneer Press
“Exploding with violence and seething with arousal, the third novel by Marlon James cuts a swath across recent Jamaican history…This compelling, not-so-brief history brings off a social portrait worthy of Diego Rivera, antic and engagé, a fascinating tangle of the naked and the dead.”
—The Washington Post
“[Marlon James] is a virtuoso …[the novel is] an epic of postcolonial fallout, in Jamaica and elsewhere, and America’s participation in that history. …the book is not only persuasive but tragic, though in its polyphony and scope it’s more than that….It makes its own kind of music, not like Marley’s, but like the tumult he couldn’t stop.”
—New York Times Book Review
“An ambitious and loquacious exploration of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in December 1976. It also tells the story of 1970s Jamaica through a polyphonous chain of ‘voices’ (ghosts, Rastas and gangstas), juxtaposing reggae with street violence. James takes risks that none of his rivals dare... [an] intoxicatingly prolix narrative.”
“Brilliantly executed… The novel makes no compromises, but is cruelly and consummately a work of art.”
—The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“An excellent new work of historical fiction … part crime thriller, part oral history, part stream-of-consciousness monologue.”
“An impressive feat of storytelling: raw, uncompromising, panoramic yet meticulously detailed. The Jamaica portrayed here is one many people have heard songs about but have never seen rendered in such arresting specificity—and if they have, only briefly.”
“Marlon James’s epic docu-novel about Jamaica in the throes of political upheaval is a thrilling…exegesis on the idea of island history itself James has written a dangerous book, one full of lore and whispers and history… [a] great book... James nibbles at theories of who did what and why, and scripts Marley’s quest for revenge with the pace of a thriller. His achievement, however, goes far beyond opening up this terrible moment in the life of a great musician. He gives us the streets, the people, especially the desperate, the Jamaicans whom Marley exhorted to: ‘Open your eyes and look within:/ Are you satisfied with the life your living?”
—The Boston Globe
“I highly recommend you pick [A Brief History of Seven Killings] up. As a book of many narrators, this novel reminds me of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives.”
—NPR, All Things Considered
“A strange and wonderful novel…Mr. James’s chronicle of late 20th-century Jamaican politics and gang wars manages consistently to shock and mesmerise at the same time.”
“A sweeping novel that touches on family, friendship, celebrity, art, sexuality, ghetto politics, geopolitics, drug trade, gender, race and more, sending the reader from Jamaica to New York via Miami and Cuba and back.”
“Rendered with virtuosic precision and deep empathy.”
“The book is exasperating and confusing, raw and violent, and overrun with wicked, empty people. It's also breathtaking, daring, and once you finally start sorting things out as the book ends, a bit intoxicating…Few writers take such gambles. Fewer still can pull them off.”
“Tumultuous and overwhelming, A Brief History of Seven Killings would have been hard to overlook in any case…A testament not only to James’s prodigiously versatile writing but also to his awareness that an undaunted, self-made character is crucial to helping his reader navigate A Brief History of Seven Killings’s dark heart.”
“A big powerhouse of a book, confident and fast-paced, as page-turning as any supermarket-aisle thriller. It's time to read it.”
“This ambitious novel requires an ambitious reader… The sheer number of characters, the Caribbean slang, and the gonzo view of violence and corruption are dizzying but nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
“The way James uses language is amazing….Vigorous, intricate and captivating, A Brief History of Seven Killings is hard to put down.”
“Thrilling, ambitious…Both intense and epic.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Marlon James’s epic and dizzying third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings… announces Marlon James as a writer in the same league as Salman Rushdie, Reinaldo Arenas, and others who’ve risked their skin to get at the truth.”
“This ambitious novel, which spans decades but centers on Kingston, Jamaica, in the nineteen-seventies, is a complex portrait of a society ruled by violence. … Gang leaders and their underlings, journalists and spooks, ordinary Jamaicans struggling to stay alive form a kind of chorus flooding the novel with a rich abundance of detail.”
—The New Yorker
“James’s masterful novel radiates; [it’s] a character-driven tale that takes place in a maelstrom of guns, drugs and politics.”
“Technically astounding… a wildly ambitious and brilliant book...this stunning counterfactual fiction evokes both the pungency of Faulkner’s Southern gothic Yoknapatawpha novels and the wild tabloid noir of James Ellroy’s ‘White Jazz’…[Marlon] James raises fiction’s ante throughout this bravura novel.”
“Like a capacious 19th-century novel crossed with a paranoid Don DeLillo conspiracy-theory thriller…the book rewards time spent, bringing a complex perspective on violence, corruption, and the untidiness of humanity to vivid life and astonishing detail. It makes you want to rush out and read everything else James has written.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A gripping tale in which music, drugs, sex, and violence collide with explosive results.”
“An exuberant, Balzacian novel by self-described ‘post-post colonialist’ writer who is at ease with several canons, traditions, and dialects. You’ll also find a political novel on the level of Don DeLillo. It’s the rare ‘revelation’ that will easily outlive its hype-cycle.”
“A dazzling fictional representation of Jamaica.”
"A Brief History of Seven Killings is an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can't think of a better one I've read this century."
– Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting
"There's a crowd of brilliant young Americo-Caribbean writers coming to the table these days, and Marlon James is not just among the best of them, he's among the best of all the young writers, period. He knows whereof he speaks, and he speaks with power and clarity. This novel cracks open a world that needs to be known. It has epic reach and achieves it. It's scary and lyrically beautiful - you'll want to read whole pages aloud to strangers."
“A Brief History of Seven Killings is a masterpiece. Hinged around the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Kingston, this massive poetic novel is a gripping, riveting read. Intuitively original, deeply erudite and intelligent, told from multiple points of view, it unravels the lethal world of mid-1970s Jamaican politics and its decades-long consequences in the deadly yardie world of crack-dealing. Magnificent.”
—Chris Salewicz, author of Bob Marley: The Untold Story
“Upon finishing, the reader will have completed an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica’s troubled years. This novel should be required reading.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Stunning… A brilliant novel, highly recommended; one of those big, rich, magisterial works that lets us into a world we really don’t know.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
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Add to the story's complexity the fact that most of the characters are from the ghettos of Kingston, and speak in a patois that takes some serious acclimation initially, and will slow your reading speed to a crawl at times. Amazingly though, after spending nearly a week with these characters, I felt like I had picked up the meanings quite well and could read those sections much quicker. Strangely, for me, this adaptation was the most rewarding aspect of this particular reading experience. In fact, as much respect as I now have for Marlon James' talent, I have to admit that I did not actually enjoy this novel, and found it made for an almost constantly uncomfortable reading experience.
The last time I felt the inability to enjoy such a well written book, I was reading In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a Pulitzer finalist. Both books require the reader to spend most of their time in very difficult places. By difficult I mean places where innocents suffer a great deal of agony and injustice, and both books left me feeling a certain hopelessness from which I felt the reader was never released. That may well be James' intention, and the fact that he could take me to such places and make them feel so real as to make me uncomfortable is a testament to his talents.
This novel contains a great deal of incredibly graphic violence (including rape), and in fact I cannot name a more graphically violent novel that I've read in the past few years. Perhaps Philip Meyers' "The Son" comes close? There is also a lot of quite graphic sex, and since the majority of the novel's many characters are hardcore criminals, the language is very often coarse throughout the story. The number of such moments are what makes it difficult for me to recommend the book to anyone whose taste and tolerance for such things I do not know well. But the novel seems to me to have been an honest one, and as you wallow in the depths and the dregs with these gangsters, you sense the suffering from which they were born, and and begin to understand their Machiavellian existence. Again, James was able to take me to some places I've certainly never been, but I can't necessarily say I'm glad I went there.
Overall, this is a brilliantly executed novel by a man who possesses a great deal of talent, and yet it is a book that is likely to prove a challenging read to most, for the reasons I've listed and more. I can't say that I'm happy to have read it, but I can certainly appreciate the art that James has created, and I do take some personal satisfaction in having followed such an intricate story to its end. Reading difficult fiction isn't always enjoyable, but it is usually beneficial, and for that I can say I'm grateful to have read A Brief History of Seven Killings.
A caution: This novel has multiple narrators (one of whom changes names several times), lengthy stream-of-consciousness passages, and is written with a great reliance on Jamaican patois and with references to events that may be unfamiliar to many readers. In short, it is a tough read. I started it and got about 50 pages in and realized I had no idea what I had read, so I put it aside, read some lengthy reviews and pieces of literary criticism about the book, and then started over. That was time well-spent, since after that I quickly became immersed in the book and enjoyed it thoroughly.
The first half of the book, leading up to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (referred to only as "The Singer", which gets to be a bit cloying), is stronger than the second half, dealing with the deaths of those involved in the attempt. This is not because those latter stories are uninteresting -- they are -- but because James is at his best in fully painting the world of December 1976 Jamaica. The first 300-odd pages take place over just two days, giving all the characters time to emerge. The rest of the book is a bit more rushed (and therefore a bit more confusing).
So where do I begin. This book challenged me immensely, more than any book that I can remember since reading Richard Power's "Operation Wandering Soul" about 10 years ago --- my first and only Richard Power's novel. This was the 42nd book I read this year and by far took me more time to get through than the 41 that preceded it. This was for several reasons. (1) I lacked a deep understanding of post-colonial Jamaican history, (so spent time digging up information while reading) (2) I have no familiarity with patois so it often a slog to get through the dialogue of the Jamaican character and truly make sense and understand what was being discussed (I'm not suggesting James should have changed this, it just made it harder for someone unfamiliar). (3) There is an extremely long cast of characters. Even though James provides "a cast of characters" at the beginning, keeping track of them and understanding their intertwined nature is a challenge (4) The book is long and sprawling at nearly 700 pages so won't be a quick read anyway. I don't mind long books per se, my favorite novel of the year is "A Little Life", but the combination of all of the above was asking a lot of readers. At times, I almost gave up but kept with it because there was plenty that I enjoyed.
Was sticking with it worth it? James is surely a supremely talented novelist. I do believe that the last 200 hundred or so pages moves far quicker than the beginning 500 pages --- maybe I was sufficiently acclimated to all the points I made in the last paragraph. I did feel both a sense of accomplishment, relief and admiration (for James, not me) by the time I read the final page. Some were put off by the violence, but it did not bother me since it was a realistic reflection of the characters and people James was chronicling rather than being gratuitous. The reason that I'm only giving a 3 star review is that while I don't mind putting the time and energy into a novel, it felt more like work than enjoyment every time I turned my Kindle on to start reading. I often thought about what I wasn't reading instead of "A Brief History" something that never happens when reading other great novels. For instance, I couldn't put down "A Little Life" or "The Turner House" and felt a sense of loss when I finished them that the characters and story would fade from memory as time elapsed.