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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel Paperback – September 8, 2015
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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
“[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
“Nothing short of awe-inspiring.”
“[A] tour de force… [an] audacious, demanding, inventive literary work.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Rendered with virtuosic precision and deep empathy.”
“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
“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.”
“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
“Thrilling, ambitious…Both intense and epic.”
—Los Angeles Times
“A prismatic story of gang violence and Cold War politics in a turbulent post-independence Jamaica.”
—The New Yorker
“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
“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.”
“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.”
“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
“The way James uses language is amazing….Vigorous, intricate and captivating, A Brief History of Seven Killings is hard to put down.”
“A gripping tale in which music, drugs, sex, and violence collide with explosive results.”
“James’s masterful novel radiates; [it’s] a character-driven tale that takes place in a maelstrom of guns, drugs and politics.”
“Brilliantly executed… The novel makes no compromises, but is cruelly and consummately a work of art.”
—The Minneapolis Star Tribune
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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.
The story is narrated through the first person narration of each character whose name is at the start of each chapter until the fourth part. The narration uses stream of conscious and doesn't wait around for a reader to know what is going on before delving into the story. I really wish I had more time to read because this book is the type of book that deserves a reader's undivided attention. The dialogue is not tagged other than with hyphens and an occasional tag but it is often hard to be sure who is speaking. Marley is only referred to as the Singer and though it tells a story about him it never narrates from his perspective.
Check out the rest of my review and more at swilliky.com
However, I just couldn't finish the book. The violence disturbed me a lot. The language was very crude. Yes, I know that the slum dwellers speak like that, but it still made me depressed. Even weighing the sociological value of the book, it wasn't worth me getting upset by spending time in its pages. This saddened me, because I had been looking forward to this book a lot, and saved it for a special treat.
Having said that, this is a well- crafted novel with the bonus of providing historical insight if you are a fan of the evolution of reggae music genres, as well as the role the music has played in the fabric of Jamaican society and politics.
Brush up on your patois, and journey into the varying facets of Jamaican life on the island and abroad.