Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings opens with a Jamaican proverb: “If it no go so, it go near so.” As a fictional account of very real events, it’s hard to think of a more fitting phrase.
I’d been meaning to read A Brief History for many months. A year, in fact, as a new Man Booker Prize winner was announced shortly after I started. I don’t regret waiting; James’ novel about political violence in Jamaica from the 60’s to 80’s has been cathartic, seeing me through the climactic weeks of the U.S. election. James’ work is on the mythological level, taking the real shooting of Bob Marley, known only as The Singer in the novel, in 1976 and building out from it a fictitious epic about poverty, sexuality, women’s rights, and identity. James makes you feel like you’re a witness to an important moment. It is a distinct history that stems from a single moment which impacts the lives of dozens of characters in unforeseeable ways.
Less is better than more when discussing A Brief History. Truly it is a piece of work which has been staged as an experience — to reveal too much is a disservice to each delicious turn and surprise connection which is better enjoyed when you toil through it. At 600+ pages with each chapter alternating between characters, the book feels like a friend telling you a short story only to realize that every detail is important. At times I felt impatient. Becoming drawn to certain characters or certain moments more than others. My eyes would skip ahead a page and discover that I missed something and had to go back. I reread pages many times to make sure I understood.
The characters speak in their native voices so you have to switch gears from patois, both well-educated and not-very-much-so, American, and Cuban, each with their own sets of slang. It takes some time to adjust to each voice, further slowing down the reading process, but also makes the immersion into the story that much deeper. There was something soothing about not being talked down to. It made the reading experience feel more authentic and believable, so much so I that found myself Googling to check whether events were real.
James is a master storyteller, weaving each chapter into another so that you’re disappointed when you realize it is time to move to another character’s thoughts, only to have it ebb away as you become accustomed again then suddenly reappear as the next chapter end. Add in the fact that he experiments with the established prose for some chapters (for reasons I will not share in the name of being spoiler-free) and you find yourself exhausted by the sheer breadth and depth of the story.
I also felt a margin of pride at understanding patois with my limited experience of it in Canada. Like James, I am part of the diaspora except I am a first-generation Canadian, leaving me with a different kind of question relating to homeland and identity. Yet, the mythology of Jamaica is as real to me as my family’s stories of growing up in Kingston. In many ways, A Brief History was a siren song I could not resist. But like many great works, what makes the characters most relatable is their humanity. Their biases, failings, hopes, and emotions are relatable for anyone. It is frightening to find yourself empathizing with political violence, and especially chilling when read during the context of these past weeks.
I found myself relating President-Elect Donald Trump’s rise with James’ work in many ways. Dissatisfaction with the government on all sides, a feeling of disillusion and helplessness, and fear of danger in your home were all reflected in its pages. As the story progresses you empathize with the people stuck between bad choices and in need of someone to blame. It made me wonder if a similar novel about our own times won’t appear in the next 50 years. As a piece of art, James’ novel is a must read. If you’re searching for pure entertainment, look elsewhere. This book is demanding and not for the light-hearted, but it is poetically true.