To go from reading A Brief History of Seven Killings to reading anything that isn’t A Brief History of Seven Killings is like running a marathon with ankle weights and then taking them off for a walk around the block. A challenging, sweeping, impressive novel, ABH7K is a mental and emotional workout. It taxes the brain and the heart—the former’s capacity for ensemble narration and multiple dialects, and the latter’s tolerance for brutality.
Spanning 1976 to 1991; Kingston, Jamaica, to New York City; ABH7K is a spiral of subplots and broader themes surrounding the (IRL) December 3, 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, which took place two days before a free concert organized to foster peace between warring gangs (who were backed by opposing political parties, who were backed by—or opposed by—the CIA/U.S. government). At various points throughout the 70s and subsequent decades, we peer inside the heads of, among others, the gang members behind the shooting, a journalist hunting for the inside story, a Marley one-night stand desperate to get out of Jamaica, CIA agents stationed in Kingston, and a murdered politician narrating from beyond the grave. What emerges through these intertwined experiences is a window onto a cyclical power struggle of epic criminal and political proportions, a complex web of—to use the appropriate regional terminology—fuckery.
Strictly from an accessibility standpoint, ABH7K is a bit of an uphill battle. Author Marlon James so commits to the vernacular of his particular narrators that it can be jarring to switch from one to the other, from Jamaican patois to jaded CIA agent banter to the manic half-formed thoughts of a drug-addled gunman. But even that confusion is a nod to the novel’s strengths from a literary standpoint: You may not love ABH7K, but it’s hard not to find the book impressive.
Indeed, in some ways ABH7K begs for a close read—it’s heavily researched and broad in scope. It references real events and can easily be a jumping-off point for a rabbit hole of Googling Jamaican history and CIA conspiracy theories. The book is epic, which makes you want to give James’ efforts the proper attention. But to enjoy ABH7K, I think one has to sacrifice a little scrutiny in favor of the big picture. It’s not a book that lends itself to grasping every particular, and while usually I’d hate that—I’m terrible at neuroses-free reading (remember this?)—James makes it doable here. The inveterate hope of some of the novel’s characters, the self-perpetuating infighting of others, and the emotional ambiguity of finding oneself on the fence about all of them make it an unquestionably compelling novel. That is also challenges its readers to dive headfirst into a foreign country, culture, dialect and time period, all through the eyes of a dozen different people, is both a testament to theABH7K’s impact and a caution against trying to, for example, read it casually on the subway.
Every so often, I finish a book I worked for, one that allows me to balance my intellectual checkbook of challenging literature vs. the latest YA craze. Reading is for me such an escape that I can forget it’s not always supposed to be easy; sometimes the books with the biggest payoff are the ones you struggle through, at least until you hit a good groove. ABH7K is that kind of book. It’s immense and complex and sometimes confusing and every so often a little slow. But it’s good. Really good. It’s a should read, and every so often you have to make time for a good should.
TITLE: A Brief History of Seven Killings
AUTHOR: Marlon James
PAGES: 704 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Book of Night Women
SORTA LIKE: Clockers meets City of God meets Jamaican Pulp Fiction
FIRST LINE: “Bus forty-two drove past and didn’t even stop, trying to get home before turning back into a pumpkin, I suppose.”
3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Seven Killings: not brief, includes about a billion killings”
Lovely review. The subject matter seems like it’s going to eat my heart and chew it back out, which is why I think I’ll love it (also, a complex web of fuckery based on real life events? Bring it on). The opening sentence is brilliant, anyhow. Gosh, I’m sold.
Yay! So happy to convince even one person to read this book. It’s very worth the effort.
Thank you for this review! I’ll have to read this book (eventually)! Bob Marley is my all-time favorite musician. This is going to be interesting 🙂