It's hard to describe the experience of reading Marlon James's brilliant novel A Brief History of Seven Killing or explain exactly what the book is about. The easiest explanation is that this book describes the events surrounding and after the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976 but that is only a part of this sprawling novel that takes readers on a ride through the minds of the characters who were deeply affected by the troubling times of Jamaica during the 1970s.
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.
I wanted to learn so much about the history of Jamaica and the spread of cocaine through the islands but at the same time was swept up in the great crime drama that plays out as posse leaders conspire to overthrow one another and establish dominance of the drug trade. The book jumps around in time and I found myself reading from the perspective of a character who was already dead but still thinking. The story has no main character but I found myself enjoying the company of the ruthless don Josey Wales, the Rolling Stone writer Alex Pierce, and Nina Burgess who changes her name multiple times in her attempt to flee her home country. I liked the second part in New York a bit more since I could make sense of it but this might have only been after an exposure to the confusing Jamaican patois.
Marlon James strikes me as one of the best writers I've had the privilege to read while they are still alive. I was foolish to purchase the Kindle version not sure what this book would be about and buying it on an impulse. It is a book that makes me want to go back to school to discuss and dissect and research more about. I wish I had more time to just sit down and read it again. I looked up all sorts of podcasts and interviews with the author to learn more about the process, his views, and what he plans to do in the future.
Not only is the book difficult to read from a narrative standpoint but the violence does not hold back. There are numerous scenes where characters whose head the reader is in perform awful actions without too much guilt or second thought. One of my favorite parts of this book was how it did not hold back on the awful brutality of the killers. The book is long as well and I now join a group of readers who are persistent at approaching very difficult fiction.
I recommend this book to any reader who enjoys a good challenge and feeling reward at the end of an emotional roller coaster. The book is informative and fun and well deserving of the recognition it has received. One thing that really sold me on this book was James's talk about writing an African fantasy epic, so I am going to wait for that and purchase it as soon as it hits the shelves. I didn't do this book justice in this review and would love to discuss it further with other readers. Check out this book as soon as you have time to read it!