Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

You want to know something about how complicated Jamaica is? Read just this one commentary in the Jamaica Observer, "When a simple 'to rahtid' will not do", and follow the clues: power cuts in the House of Parliament; a 30% year-over-year increase in robberies in the commercial district; and most importantly for this post, the Tivoli Report on the 2010 Kingston unrest (a.k.a. the Tivoli incursion), in which 86 people were killed in the search for a don who had already promised to surrender himself.

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings is loosely based on the personalities and histories behind the Tivoli incursion, with Christopher "Dudus" Coke recreated in the figure of Josey Wales. The novel's all about voice, James says in his acknowledgements section, "a novel that would be driven only by voice," and frankly it would've been good to know that before starting to try and keep track of the novel's dozens of characters (some of them with multiple names) in several locations interacting in all sorts of ways. I'm considering dropping the word "bombocloth" into conversation, though, so that's something.

There are lots of reviews of this novel, some of them lengthy and most of them glowing, so feel free to spend time with Anupa Mistry (Toronto Star), Scott Carey (, Christopher Tayler (London Review of Books), or Zachary Lazar (New York Times). Heck, stop by Rolling Stone itself to learn more about the author.

Just don't look to me for much praise. Sure, yes, this novel is ripped from the headlines, a voice-driven reanimation of recent Jamaica history, a postcolonial wunderkammer of kaleidoscopic Faulkneriana, but it's not my novel. Certainly I see myself as blameworthy, to some extent, in James' powerful objections that writers of colour have had to satisfy white readers in order to say obliquely the kinds of things they should have been able to write about directly: I wanted to quit reading A Brief History of Seven Killings long before the last page. There are so many voices out there, though, so many stories, and why shouldn't I privilege those struggling to articulate the troubles and complications in my own country?

Tonight, mind you, I couldn't avoid hearing Donald "IT'S NOT A COMBOVER" Trump say he'd choose Americanism over globalism every damned time, so I'm pained by the possibility that I'm just a parochial whitey with no more than misguided good intentions. Still, I say it again: A Brief History of Seven Killings isn't my novel. If you're into glorious messes of novels, then maybe it's for you, but you'd better like learning a new patois, overlooking sadism, and not counting the dead. For 700 pages.

You'd be better off reading Tamara Scott-Williams in the Jamaica Observer, and seeing where the references lead you.

(Good luck, book club!)


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