A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Riverhead Books, 2014; 704 pp
Reviewed by Kimberly Gibson
“If it no go so, it go near so,” declares the Jamaican proverb in an epigraph to last year’s Man Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings. In this epic of gang violence, which ranges from 1960s Kingston to 1990s New York, James tells his story from the first-person eyes of the bystanders and participants surrounding Bob Marley’s assassination attempt in 1976. As the Jamaican saying suggests, A Brief History tries to imagine the complex political underpinnings behind the events of the time, though the drama falls somewhat below its Biblical and Shakespearean allusions.
Shakespearean, I say, because one of the most fascinating voices in the book is the Banquo-esqe ghost of an assassinated politician named Sir Arthur Jennings who tells us the novel’s aim from the first chapter:
This is a story of several killings, of boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning, but each of them as they pass me carry the sweet-stink scent of the man that killed me.
Unfortunately, Jennings’ darkly mythical musings, though they crop up now and again, fade out before the last section of the novel, leaving behind the richness of his possible revenge.
Likewise, the Biblical parallel of Marley (Known only as “The Singer” in the novel) to Jesus isn’t carried through to the end. Though we do have a Judas in the gangster Josey Wales and a Magdalene in Nina Burgess, and though “The Singer” rises from his injuries to play a concert before thousands, the focus of the novel shifts abruptly to the political machinations behind the scenes and, later, to the formation of Jamaican drug gangs in New York.
So many elements are brilliant in this ambitious novel, but what’s lacking is unifying thematic structure. The Singer’s attempted murder is merely a turning point, not the climax, and Josey Wales’ fate doesn’t clinch the story. In a way, I feel cheated as the author teases a sharply defined narrative through the history of seven murders only to shoot far beyond bounds of the proposed plot. In this, perhaps, James approaches the reality of the Jamaican proverb in the book’s epigraph, sticking to historical realities instead of crafting a tight epic tragedy.
Admittedly, I was unsatisfied with some of the unresolved stories that I thought would become major thematic touchstones, but, as James slyly says through one of the novel’s characters, “The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.” And in the end, when I think of the immense research, creativity, and devotion that this novel must have demanded from the author, I have to applaud the effort.