BOOK REVIEW: “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Marlon James – 2014)

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Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (2014) is a challenging, demanding historical fiction narrated by multiple characters, giving a complex viewpoint of Jamaican crime, gang culture, and politics over several decades.  It’s a character-driven epic, told in non-linear time, and focuses on the ripples and consequences of the people involved in the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in his Jamaican home in 1976, only days before a national election and his appearance at the celebrity-filled Smile Jamaica Peace Concert.   

This was a book I couldn’t put down, even during those times when I was arguably inching my way through the thick Jamaican patois or flipping to the front of the book where the 70+ characters were listed out so that I could figure out who was talking at any particular time.  It’s an intense world these characters occupy filled with raw, over-the-top violence, drugs, ghetto politics, intrigue, and celebrity.

James gives us this world from several perspectives.  This isn’t the tourist-friendly Jamaican commercial with white sand beaches and the friendly, dreadlocked Rasta inviting you to “Come to Jamaica” dressed in white bringing a rum drink on a beach chair.  This ain’t the Jamaica you want to visit, take my word for it. This is the Jamaica of the Kingston ghettos, in places like Copenhagen City where Dons like Papa-Lo are supported by a gang of enforcers with names like Josey Wales, Weeper, Bam-Bam, Priest, and Copper.  It’s the Jamaica of the Eight Lanes, where local don Shotta Sheriff, Funnyboy and Dishrag hold sway. It’s Jamaica trying to determine what future it will have for itself, with the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) vying for the hearts and souls of the people as the parties backers in Cuba and in the CIA did their best to swing things their way.

I found the scope of the storytelling particularly impressive.  James doesn’t make it easy for the reader, but it all made sense by the time I was pushing the 700-page mark.  What was confusing to me initially was wholly necessary by the end. This is a story that demands to be told from multiple viewpoints.  It’s easy to wonder who could possibly have reason to kill Bob Marley, which was my personal thought when the story of the assassination attempt (in real life) came to my attention.  The story isn’t as simple as saying that multiple gunmen burst into a house. As the cocky, character Alex Pierce points out near the end of the book as he’s being held captive by a Jamaican gang, “…you can get that from the nightly news.”

These characters are not nice people.  They kill with impunity, and without remorse.  The story tracks them from the failed assassination attempt as the individuals and the gangs make their way north, first to Miami and then to New York, trying to control the burgeoning cocaine business that overtook America in the 1980’s.  These people are as sketchy as they come. Their stories are frightening and compelling.

Brilliant, powerful, epic, emotional and deeply moving, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” was a choice read.  It’s real; a violent, vulgar exploration of a time and a world that few outside Jamaica have ever seen.  It’s a world I’ve never known and one that I don’t think I’ll soon forget. Highly recommended. (****)

You can buy the book here:


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