Tackling Marlon James’ Booker-winning, 700-page novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is daunting, as a reader and a reviewer both. Taking as its centrepiece the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, it follows the lives of those involved in the shooting (who have not been identified in real life) in various capacities through to the 1980s and beyond. In doing so it takes in Jamaican politics, the CIA, the New York crack wars and the 1970s music scene among many, many other things. It has more than 75 characters, from 16 of whom we get direct first-person narration – they include Kingston gangsters (many), an inept CIA agent, a woman who dreams of reaching the USA, and a ghost. Narration styles range from stream-of-consciousness Jamaican patois to would-be omniscient upper-class RP.
It’s A Lot.
But, let’s look at that sense of overwhelm for a second, because I think it’s a feature, not a bug. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a novel concerned with people not plot; to put it another way, it’s very difficult (at least for this reader!) to discern the architecture of the novel, its overall structure and progression, apart from in the very broad sense that it proceeds chronologically, beginning in 1976 and ending in 1991. You’re just so…stuck in these characters’ heads that it’s difficult to zoom out and appreciate the wider context.
This, for me, reflects how everyone in this novel (save perhaps the Singer, Bob Marley) is trapped by circumstance: by extreme poverty; by politics; by metaphysics, in the case of the ghost. And, overwhelmingly, by toxic masculinity. Like James’ recent fantasy novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, this is an intensely violent text. Graphic rape, murder and general vigilantism feature on practically every page, not to mention coercion and misogyny. For me, this is a book about people – mostly men – stuck in these cycles of violence, relying on them to consolidate power and maintain their positions in a world where masculinity is coded by violence and one’s willingness to carry it out; where one’s very survival might be contingent on just that. James’ characters perpetuate these cycles, but they’re also victims of them. The overwhelm the novel creates in its readers – the way it forces us to live in these characters’ heads – enacts how trapped its characters are, their inability to see any way out of the cycles of violence and prejudice they live in.