Book review | A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Robert Pisani

14 September 2015, 8:17am
In 1976, two days before he was going to headline the Smile Jamaica concert, singer Bob Marley and his wife Rita were the victims of a botched assassination attempt by a group of Jamaican Labour Party affiliates. 

At the time, the supporters of the two major political parties, the leftist People’s National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaican Labour Party, were involved in violent gang warfare. Although the Smile Jamaica concert was supposed to have no political affiliations, it eventually received funding from the ruling party, PNP. Despite having a bullet lodged in his arm, Marley went ahead with concert and afterwards emigrated to the U.K for two years.

This atmosphere of political unrest and violence is the backdrop to Marlon James’ ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’.

James’ novel is a complex piece of work. He chronicles the events leading to the shooting, the aftermath and Jamaican social structure through different viewpoints. The cast in A Brief History totals to over 75 characters and James creates different literary voices for all of them - dons, rock journalists, politicians, gang members and CIA agents all give their point of view of the shooting in Jamaican patois, colloquial English and American slang. This novel is a whole mash up of language, cultures and attitudes.

Midway through the novel (or after the shooting), the main gang dons leave the violence of the Jamaican ghetto and move to the U.S. in order to deal crack cocaine. Ultimately, they delve into another jungle with just as many bullets and fatalities. Clearly gang warfare never ends and James pounds this point deep into the ground.

Due to its intricate nature, A Brief History of Seven Killings is not an easy read. A strong suggestion before tackling the book would be to conduct some background research on Jamaican politics during the late seventies and early eighties. It also helps to consult an online dictionary of Jamaican patois. 

Despite the amount of protagonists, James manages in making each individual distinctive, however the character who stands out the most is Nina Burgess, whose personality shifts and morphs throughout the novel. Her observations of Jamaican and U.S. society make her James’ mouthpiece for Caucasian attitudes towards Jamaicans, either on home turf or abroad.

At times A Brief History can be a chore to read. While I enjoy actually reading a book, in this case I was glad I managed to finish the novel as I saw it as a challenge. It is definitely not a novel to read once as I am sure that with further readings more of its ‘charm’ will be revealed. 

I will say that the accolades for ambitious novels in this vein  (‘dazzling’ and ‘original’ among others) are deserved. It is definitely not unreadable and after a time, the use of patois sounds like poetry and it helped me see some reggae lyrics (cf Dillingers’ ‘Cocaine in my Brain’ or Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’) in a different light. If you are up to the test or have excellent knowledge of the subject matter then go for it. You will be rewarded nicely.

On my copy of the book there is a glowing quote by author Irvine Welsh on the cover. I can see why such a book would appeal to him. Welsh’s first novel Trainspotting, like A Brief History, contains a mixture of dialects, drugs and music. There’s also use of different viewpoints to describe the same scene. The main difference is that Welsh’s main character Renton manages to overcome his heroin addiction and escape, while no one escapes the violence of ghetto life that James describes. You are born into it and you cannot choose to leave it. You can shoot or be shot and eventually, you will be shot.