A Brief History of Seven Killings
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a novel about the gang violence and Cold War politics that consume Jamaica following its independence in the 1960s. The narrative is centred around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 in the run up to his peace concert and the national elections which pitted supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) against those from the People’s National Party (PNP). Written from the perspectives of people the singer was acquainted with at the time, the text comprises a whopping 76 characters, 15 with speaking parts, that include drug lords, journalists, CIA officers and ex-girlfriends.
The most obvious thing to comment on in this text is James’ very distinct writing style. Some elements of the writing were very lyrical, almost poetry-like; while others were gritty and to-the-point. James’ range is so impressive that in most chapters it was easy to distinguish who was who even without being told which character was speaking. Each chapter is narrated by a different character and the text is mostly rendered through extensive periods of dialogue. Some characters were definitely stronger than others and I feel, on the whole, the stories of the Jamaican characters were fleshed out a lot better than that of the American CIA agents and journalists.
The biggest theme in this book is of conflict and the cyclical nature of violence within poverty-stricken slums and areas experiencing civil unrest. The way James portrayed violence was particularly strong through how it fed into ideas of masculinity and sexuality and how gang members, notably Weeper and John-John, struggle to confront their same-sex desire in such a hypermasculinised space. There is zero sentimentality or romance in any of the relationships within the novel. If they aren’t transactional, they are violent or based on domination. I think the character of Nina Burgess was especially interesting in this debate. Her unhappiness within her heterosexuality is likened to the inner-conflicts of the men, demonstrating how sexual orientation and identity are complexly woven. Ultimately, it explores how men, as well as women, can be victims of a misogynistic society which is bound by gender expectations.
While the depiction of women in the novel is not great, this is somewhat redeemed through Nina and the hope that she brings through the events of the story. Her aim throughout is to escape Jamaica and the violence she is subject to via her mother’s rape and her accidental dealings with the Jamaican underworld. Out of all the characters, I really connected with Nina/Kim/Dorcas/Millicent and her ability to reinvent herself at different stages of her life. While each step of her narration is framed by the relationships she forms with the men around her, she retains her individuality through her fiery survival instinct which prevents her past from catching up to her. On another level, her ability to adopt many guises serves as a reminder that Nina Burgess is not just a singular character, but rather she represents all women who have been failed by unjust systems.
Again, I don’t think this will be a book for everyone. At almost 700 pages, it is a long novel (probably the longest I’ve ever read) and the switching narration is a little ‘choppy’ at times. That being said, the writing was excellent and it’s clear that a lot of research had been carried out for the novel which I really appreciate. It is definitely a slow burner but rightfully so. There is so much action in this text that to sustain that kind of pace throughout would be unrealistic. However, once you do get into it, the story takes you on such a whirlwind journey and, for this, it is definitely worth the initial drudgery. With this being my first Marlon James novel, I am now desperate for more and have every intention of revisiting his other work.