KARL DALLAS recommends this year’s Man Booker prizewinner, set in Jamaica from the turbulent 1970s onwards
A Brief History of 7 Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead Books, £8.99)
WINNER of this year’s Man Booker prize, this long story of over 700 pages centres on the attempted assassination of reggae singer Bob Marley in 1976.
It’s a monumental and multifaceted achievement even though, because much of it is in Jamaican patois, it is not an easy read.
And, because of its depiction of the lower depths of Jamaican society, it’s unlikely to obtain the endorsement of the Jamaican tourist board.
The genesis of the author’s third book began in some confusion. In a note at the end he writes of its conception: “I had a narrative, even a few pages, but still not quite a novel. The problem was that I couldn’t tell whose story it was.
“Draft after draft, page after page, character after character, and still no through line, no narrative spine, nothing.”
A colleague suggested that he turn those fragments into a multivoiced narrative. “I had a novel, and it was right in front of me all that time. Half-formed and fully formed characters, scenes out of place, hundreds of pages that needed sequence and purpose.
“A novel that would be driven only by voice.”
Supposedly, it took the Man Booker judges just two hours’ discussion before they unanimously gave James the award but it’ll take readers many hours more, if not days and weeks more, to reach their own verdict.
This is a big book, not only in length but in depth also.
Reading it, I was reminded many times of the nightmare “Nighttime” dream sequence in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Like that book, its strength is its basis in reality. But while Joyce concentrated the focus of his work on a single Dublin day, Marlon James’s narrative begins in 1976 and ends in 1991, shifting from one ghetto to another and from Kingston, Jamaica to Miami and New York.
It’s not something you can read just once and leave to gather dust on your bookshelves. I guarantee that, if you are prepared to put the work in, it will repay repeated readings in the years to come.
The author doesn’t make things easy, though.
Although he provides a list of the 70-odd — some very odd — characters at the beginning of the book, his hero-victim is referred to only as the Singer, although a Rolling Stone journalist says at one stage: “I should head back to Marley’s house tomorrow. I mean, I had an appointment. Like that means anything in Jamaica.”
The various ghettos are given new names. Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens becomes Copenhagen, which loses the irony of the original name for what one local newspaper has described as the worst slum in the Caribbean, where “three communal standpipes and two public bathrooms served a population of well over 5,000 people.”
If the book has anything like a central character, it would be Josey Wales — in real life, many Jamaicans have adopted names from US films. Robert Brammer became Clint Eastwood. Shotta Sherrif/Roland Palmer, don of the Eight Lanes, takes his name from Marley’s “I shot the sheriff” and the term becomes a generic description of ghetto killers.
“Me stun like little boy when him first see a dead shotta,” says one character. Wales is obviously based on the real-life Lester Coke, the former Tivoli posse drugs boss, whose death in a crack-house fire is the climax of James’s story.
The book could do with a patois glossary and one advantage of reading the Kindle edition is that if you select a word you don’t understand you can sometimes, though not always, be given an explanation.
One thing that jarred with me was the frequent obscenities. I have interviewed many Jamaican musicians, including Marley, but none of them peppered their speech with terms like “pussyhole,” which appears over 100 times in the text.
Though few of the characters could be said to be models of spiritual perfection, most of them are in fact deeply religious and not just the comparatively few Rastafarians depicted within the book.
Before he is ousted as Copenhagen “don” by the Wales/Coke character, Papa-Lo muses: “The world now feeling like the seven seals breaking one after the other. Hataclaps or ill feeling, something in the air.” Hataclaps means “apocalypse” and the reference is to the last book in the Bible, the trippy Revelation of St John the Evangelist.
As the CIA Jamaica chief says, the situation there was “like Cuba in 1959, only worse because this was all religious.”