The 2015 Booker Prize Winner
Singer-songwriter Bob Marley has become synonymous to reggae music. He pioneered a phenomenon that revolutionized music. In the ambit of music, he has sang and written a long list of hits that transcend time, amongst them are No Woman No Cry, and Buffalo Solider. Marley commandeered a musical movement that transcended time, creating a deep impression with his distinct and tropical upbeat sound. Marley and his artistry conquered the world stage but, more importantly, his his ascent to global popularity ushered in a recognition for Jamaican music and sound. As colorful as Marley’s singing career is his personal life. Of the many events in his life, the events of one fateful day stands out – December 3, 1976.
In the hopes of easing the tension between the prominent political factions, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley organized a free concert, Smile Jamaica Concert. It was going to be bannered by no less than Jamaican icon Bob Marley himself. December 3, 1976, two days before the concert, an unfortunate series of events unfolded. Seven armed men raided Marley’s residence at 56 Hope Road, Kingston. Marley, his wife and manager Don Taylor were assaulted by the anonymous gunmen. The hostages sustained serious wounds but managed to survive through the ordeal. Despite the unconscionable attempt to his life, Marley opted to proceed with the concert. Whilst it was a pivotal moment in Marley’s career, very little was known of what transpired during that day.
Nearly four decades later, Jamaican writer Marlon James drew inspiration from the events preceding and succeeding Smile Jamaica Concert. His reimagined version of the events that transpired in the Marley residence and its impact formed the backbone of his third major literary work, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Published in 2014, it was a critical success, earning James several accolades the world over. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for the same year. Greater success awaited in 2015 when A Brief History of Seven Killings was adjudged the winner for the prestigious Booker Prize. This catapulted James to greater recognition, becoming the first Jamaican-born author to win the Prize.
“But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.”~ Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
A Brief History of Seven Killings commenced on the eve of the eventful day, opening with the soliloquy of a ghost, the specter of a murdered politician named Sir Arthur George Jennings. “But the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. This is what I wanted to say. When you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there’s nothing to do but stay and wander awhile.” He was the opening act to a labyrinthine narrative comprised of five sections carrying titles of various musical tracks. Sir Arthur George Jennings’s voice permeated all throughout the narrative, prominently closing each of the five section.
Each of these five sections charted the events of a particular day, starting with Original Rockers which navigated what transpired during the eve of December 3, 1976. The second section of the novel, Ambush in the Night, delved into the events leading to the attempted assassination. These sections were further divided into the perspectives of a vast cast of characters, from CIA agents, to gunmen, to prostitutes. However, Marley was never directly named in the narrative; he was simply alluded to as the “Singer”. It was a bold assumption on James’ part that readers immediately recognize who he was. Seen through another lens, James was subtly implying that this story goes beyond the events of December 3.
Through his vast cast of characters, James carefully painted a dynamic tapestry, slowly recounting the events that transpired whilst simultaneously building up tenterhook that culminated in the attempted assassination of the Singer. On the surface, the novel marketed itself as revolving around the events surrounding the attempted assassination of Marley, the novel was never solely the Singer’s story. As one digs deeper, A Brief History of Seven Killings slowly revelas itself as a story “about the people around him, the ones that come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture than asking the Singer why he smokes ganja”.
Going beyond the events of December 1976, the novel vividly projected three decades of the Jamaican experience. The narrative was prominently juxtaposed on the rich and, often, bleak modern history of Jamaica. James wrote an immersive story that covered a vast ground of modern Jamaican history, often characterized by various government conspiracies, the prevalence of gang violence, corrupt government and police officials, and the inevitable but often clandestine intervention of the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the affairs of a sovereign nation. These are universal themes rendered through local voices, with the occasional foreign ones.
“You ever feel like home is the one place you can’t go back to? It’s like you promise yourself when you got out of bed and combed your hair that this evening, when I get back I’ll be a different woman in a new place. And now you can’t go back because the house expects something from you.”~ Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
The novel also expounded on the evolution of both Jamaican politics and criminality until 1991, particularly in the latter sections of the novel – Shadow Dancin (Fenruary 15, 1979), White Lines/Kids in America (August 14, 1985), and Sound Boy Killing (March 22, 1991). The criminal underworld of Kingston was vividly captured through the novel’s lenses. The story followed the movement of Jamaican gang members, hence, the narrative’s peripatetic nature, transporting readers from Kingston to Montego Bay in Jamaica to as far north as Miami and New York in the USA. The Jamaican diaspora was also tackled in the novel. The evolution of the drug trade and the involvement of the gangs in the crack traffic were also alluded to in the novel.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a massive sprawl, covering subjects on both local and universal scale. One seminal theme vividly depicted in the novel is how other nationalities have romanticized countries plagued with poverty and violence. James fascinated on the big picture but he further complimented this tapestry with details dealing on a plethora of subjects on a more personal scale. Through the several characters and their distinct voices, James subtly imbued the novel with subjects of sexuality, identity, and sexual orientations. The struggle for identity also resonated on a national level, as the nation grappled to find its post-colonial identity. The novel also tackled the hardships of women.
With its labyrinthine plot and its massive cast of characters, it does take some time to warm up to the narrative. At the start, James kept introducing characters without any context. The story opened with the narration of a ghost. He was succeeded by the voice of a teenager who witnessed extreme violence. It was then succeeded by a motley crew of equally interesting narrators like a gunman, gang members, a CIA agent, and even a prostitute. There was a link but it was never clearly defined from the start; their relationships were unclear and was never established outright. It is up to the reader to trace the indelible threads connecting them. James maneuvered an orchestra, a cacophony of distinct voices tied together by the multitude of their Jamaican experiences. At times, however, the tedium of the stream of consciousness weighed down on the narrative.
The 2015 Booker Prize novel, was neither brief nor pleasurable. Within its ambit are graphic depictions of sexual encounters, murder and mutilations. James perfectly captured the spirit and atmosphere of a nation that was burdened by increasing criminality, gang violence, and the proliferation of drugs. This was coupled with the incompetence and corruption of the institutions meant to stabilize the nation. This was also projected through the novel’s meandering structure. The structure was a reflection of the pandemonium and the murky underworld from which it has emerged. It was a brutal dissection of James’ nation of birth. James never shied away from depicting the
“He’s from a generation that never even expected to get midway up the ladder so when he got there he was too stunned to dare climb higher. That’s the problem with midway. Up is everything and down just means all the white people want to party on your street on Sunday night to feel realness. Midway is nowhere.”~ Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
The various elements of the novel was held together by James’ writing and his development of the characters. It was among the successes of the novel. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, James demonstrated his adept skills at manipulating language to make his story flourish. With each character is a distinct voice and writing style; each character was a reflection of James’ writing. James celebrated the characters’ individuality and made them contribute their own voices to the grander narrative. These voices were also rendered with local colors as patois was used extensively in the narrative.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is an ambitious undertaking, both in vision and execution. Marlon James’ wrote a complex and labyrinthine narrative that drives readers through the turbulent history of a nation reeling from the offshoots of colonialism. It covered politics, violence, personal dilemmas, and even universal concerns. James was brilliant in weaving a rich tapestry that explored a plethora of subjects, building it around the events of Bob Marley’s attempted assassination. A Brief History of Seven Killings is an immersive narrative about modern Jamaica, meant to be taken in sips rather than in big gulps.
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
My first encounter with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings was when I barely had any iota on what Pulizter and Booker Prize was. Its winning the 2015 Booker Prize was bannered in popular publications and websites. It was a winner. Cool. Whilst the interesting title registered on my mind, it didn’t immediately pique my interest and simply dismissed it. To reiterate, literary prize winners were of no consequence to me, at least back then. About three or four years later, I came across the book in the bookstore. The enigmatic title juxtaposed on a yellow backdrop was reeling me and without any more ado, I bought the book, only to be read after the passage of at least two more years. HAHA. On the surface, it was the story of what happened one fateful December night but as one digs deeper, it is the story of modern Jamaica, from the crowded ghettos to an atmosphere where violence permeated. A Brief History of Seven Killings was my first James novel and it wasn’t surprising that the first few pages unsettled me. The language and storytelling were both unfamiliar. There was also a huge cast of characters, with several contributing vivid details to James’ tableau. It was a difficult read, both ambitious and complex, but one that dissects into the heart of modern Jamaican history and politics.
Author: Marlon James
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: October 2015
Number of Pages: 686
Genre: Historical Fiction
On December 3, 1976, two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, seven gunmen stormed the singer’s house. The attack wounded Marley, his wife, and his manager. Little was officially released about the gunmen, but much has been whispered, gossiped, and sung in the streets of West Kingston. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, novelist Marlon James re-creates that dangerous and unstable time as he deftly explores the lives of a host of unforgettable characters – gunmen, drug dealers, one-night stands, CIA agents, even ghosts – over the course of thirty years. The result is a gripping and irresistible novel of power, mystery, and insight.
About the Author
Marlon James was born on November 24, 1970 in Kingston, Surrey County, Jamaica, to parents both in the Jamaican police.
James’ parents were key in cultivating their son’s interest in literature, with his mother gifting him with his first prose book, and his father gifting him his love of Shakespeare and Coleridge. James attended Kingston’s prestigious Wolmer’s Trust High School for Boys. In 1991, he graduated at the University of the West Indies, where he read Language and Literature. James received his master’s degree in creative writing in 2006 from Wilkes University. James left Jamaica to escape the conditions he deemed would stymie his career growth.
James made his literary debut in 2005, with the publication of his novel, John Crow’s Devil. In 2009, he published his second novel, The Book of Night Women, to critical acclaim. It won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction, and the 2010 Minnesota Book Award (Novel and Short Story). It was also a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. James’ ascent to global recognition was propelled when his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), won the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 2015. The novel also won a slew of literary awards such as the 2015, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (Fiction category), and the 2015 Green Carnation Prize. Like its predecessor, A Brief History of Seven Killings was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. James’ most recent work, Black Leopard, Red Wolf was published in 2014.
James is currently residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is teaching literature at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also a faculty lecturer at St. Francis College’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing.