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On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.
Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters - assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts - A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 1970s, to the crack wars in 1980s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 1990s. Brilliantly inventive and stunningly ambitious, this novel is a revealing modern epic that will secure Marlon James' place among the great literary talents of his generation.
I’m finally finished. Whew. Much of A Brief History of Seven Killings used a heavy Jamaican dialect. It took so long to read and listen to it (way too long, in my opinion) that I am thinking in that Jamaican dialect now! I’m afraid I might now burst out with a, “Me no like when you do dat ,” or worse, “ bombo pussy r’asscloth,” or , “fuckery,” or “pussyhole.” Oops.
I will never think about Jamaica in the same way again. Ocho Rios? College parties? Sandals resort? Forget it. This book embodies the Jamaica behind those scenes – at least from the 1960’s through about 1991. My biggest question remains: what is Jamaica really like NOW? Are the gangs still in power? The JLP? The PNP? Is the violence, poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness as bad as it was in this book?
The characters in A Brief History had no redeeming qualities, but their circumstances do have to be considered. The gang members portrayed grew up in horrendous circumstances, so how else would they turn out but violent, amoral, and psychopathic? The only character who is sympathetic at all is Kim Burgess. Her story is also the most coherent, easy to follow, and is somewhat redemptive at the end. Other than gangsters/thugs and Kim Burgess, well , there were CIA characters and government officials, and they are evil as well. The only other character is Sir Arthur Jennings, a ghost of a murdered politician who acts like a Greek chorus commenting on the events of the novel from the grave.
I don’t mind evil characters necessarily; they were interesting in the book. The main problem with the novel for me was how very, very difficult it was to understand what was going on. There are 75 characters, and the story is told from these characters alternating points of view. Events are not examined directly, but are fractured and referred to much later. The reader has to keep the characters straight and remember events from earlier in the book so that when they are tied in to other, related events later on, things finally begin to make sense. Clarity is elusive.
One example of this is the death of Josey Wales at the end. We see Dr. Love, a CIA consultant, talking to him in his prison cell. Dr. Love gives him some kind of pill that puts him to sleep or kills him, ostensibly to save him from the pain of his coming assassination? Or ? not totally clear. Then, a couple chapters later, we hear that Josey Wales was burned in his cell. I found that resolution somewhat unsatisfying. I suppose Dr. Love or the CIA or … someone… burned him. It’s like the main event is skipped after a big build up, and then only referred to later. The same method is used for the death of “the singer.” The whole first half of the book builds up to that event, but then the actual event itself is very foggy, muddied, and unclear. Then it is referred to tangentially through many small revelations later in the story. Again, clarity remains elusive. This technique seems overused throughout the book.
Another big problem with the book for me was the dialect and the language. The dialect and sometimes the character’s syntax is really hard to understand. One chapter was completely incomprehensible. I was reading AND listening at the same time, and it was just hard going the whole way through the book. Even when the characters were white men without a dialect, the method of writing only from that character’s point of view and usually as an interior monologue was often really difficult. Sometimes a character would have a conversation with another character, but you, the reader, only got to hear one side and wouldn’t get to know the other character’s name for many pages.
The writing was powerful at times. For example, hearing the inner thoughts of one of the very young assassins who is being buried alive…. Wow, that was horrendous and powerful at the same time. And the chapter where Weeper is having sex with a man and trying to convince himself that he is not a “faggot” was extremely graphic but interesting in a voyeuristic way.
The name of the book seems to derive from the seven men who were killed over the course of the book after the they attempted to assassinate “the singer, “ as well as the name of the article that the journalist, Mark Pierce, was writing for the New Yorker at the end, which was “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
I don’t really know if Jamaica has actually changed or not, but I like this quote from Kim Burgess in the book:
“Two years since the election,” she says. “Jamaica never gets worse or better, it just finds new ways to stay the same. You can’t change the country, but maybe you can change yourself.” Most of the characters in the book, however, don't ever think about changing… or think that they could change. They are victims as well: victims of their horrible circumstances. However, this possibility of change or movement is why, to me, Kim Burgess is the heart of the story. Only her character has any kind of positive resolution at the end, albeit only a hint of one.
53 of 55 people found this review helpful
I've been an Audible member for the past 10 years and this is simply, without a doubt, the best written and the best . . . well, narrated doesn't really do the character acting justice . . . the best read audio book I have listened to in all that time.
It's poetic and historic. It's vulgar and violent and beautiful. It's tragic and comic. But most importantly . . . it's so damned interesting and engaging.
52 of 54 people found this review helpful
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS is a riveting novel -- the best novel that I can recall in the past nearly 50 years focused on organized crime, and it may be the best ever mob-centered novel in terms of literary structure and scope. It's destined to make all the lists for best books of this decade and probably for the best books since 2000. It's already been garnered for author Marlon James the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
I cannot recall a novel in the past two decades so powerful, so searing in its combination of unique voice, intriguing characters and captivating storylines, such as when it gives a number of thrilling and feverish first-person accounts for a December 1976 shooting of the character known as The Singer and the immediate, devastating aftermath, and later provides a fascinating, fictional (though plausible) explanation for Bob Marley's (I mean, the Singer character's) death in early 1981 from cancer.
The book is told almost solely in the first person narrative accounts of various characters. It follows the Greater Kingston, Jamaica gangs (chiefly, the one known as the Storm Posse) and related characters over 3 decades - in Greater Kingston for the first 2, then mainly in New York from 1985 to 1991.
The 2 complaints about this audiobook seem to be limited to: 1) difficulty in understanding the narration of some of the characters due to their broad Jamaican accent, particularly one (a teen from the slums) who slurs together his words; and, 2) too many characters to follow. Please allow me to answer each because I'd hate for anyone to miss such a treasure based on either of these two fears, both of which are simply resolved.
As to the first, I'll admit that I nearly gave up on the book with the narrative accent of the character Bam-Bam, a teen gang member. I decided that instead of abandoning the novel, I'd listen again to his first chapter. Shortly thereafter something funny happened: I began to comprehend all the Jamaican characters, including Bam-Bam, after that one re-listen and from listening to that of other Jamaican characters (maybe 90% of the book is in Jamaican accents, most of which are relatively easy to immediately comprehend). The way Marlon James wrote the novel, having multiple narrators was imperative and proved well worth it. Moreover, the accents tremendously enhanced the experience of the book.
By the way, this book has me searching for other Marlon James novels. What a talent!
As for the number of characters, I simply downloaded the kindle sample of the book which has a straightforward list of characters. With this list, I had no problem keeping up with the characters.
Also, I'll note that some females may be offended by the number of times they use the P word and the repetitive use of the derogative Jamaican slang term "bumbaclot." You don't wanna know what this means literally, trust me.
Aside from that, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.
An' one more ting me need you don fahget, me ute:
Don pess on da gorgon!
68 of 75 people found this review helpful
What would have made A Brief History of Seven Killings better?
I am still listening to this book, but I have to admit I had to buy the hardcover accompany the audiobook. The book actually has a three page list of characters that I needed to track the story, especially in the beginning. Also, the chapters were titled by the voice of the narrator, so that made it a lot easier to track. I am really enjoying the performances, but don't think I could stay the course without the character list.
44 of 50 people found this review helpful
this is one of the most intense, gritty, violent, and insane books I've ever read. it's also one of the most unique and brilliant. moves at a rapid fire speed and very suspensful. this book had some of the most vile characters I've ever heard/read/seen in anything, yet I was mesmerized and actually felt sympathy for some of them. the Jamaican dialect takes some getting used to and almost ruined it for me but I stuck with it and now I couldn't imagine the book being nearly as good without it. good narrators too minus a few frustrating chapters here and there. if you're looking for an epic read I highly recommend.
22 of 26 people found this review helpful
"God puts earth far away from heaven because even he can't stand the smell of dead flesh. Death is not a soul catcher or a spirit, it's a wind with no warmth, a crawling sickness."
-- Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
First, it is hard to push all that is into this novel into a bottle. So, I'll just say it felt like some weird hybrid of (here is my brief history of seven fathers/mothers): James Ellroy (think Jamaican Tabloid), Don DeLillo (think Libra), Zadie Smith (think Shiny Teeth), Elmore Leonard (think Get Singer), Roberto Bolaño (think Savage Possy), Gay Talese (Think Bob Marley has a Toe), and with the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.
Anyway, this novel seemed to grab me and I didn't want to let it go. There was power and pull in this novel. It attracted and repelled me at the same time. I wanted to read it, but I didn't want to finish. Just as I would fall into the mix of the dialogue, I would be pushed back out. It wasn't easy and wasn't always fun, but it was constantly amazing. It really did, emotionally, feel like I was reading one of Ellroy's best novels. It could have been Ellroy's Underworld USA #4. This was also a master juggling a bunch of themes and textual ideas. James framed this twisting story of violence, place, race, poverty, power, drugs, sex, language, and death in a funky way (but not too funky and I'm not going to give it away). It reminded me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem 'Constantly Risking Absurdity':
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience ..."
James puts it all out there. And he tends to hit most of his marks, and the ones he doesn't hit perfectly can also be excused because of the difficulty of what he is trying to pull of. This wasn't a perfect novel, but it was a perfect thrill.
25 of 30 people found this review helpful
Many reviews of this audio book commend how well written it is and many condemn how hard it is to get through. Yes it's long with many characters and incredible detail (including much violence), but it's so worth sticking with and finishing this amazingly well written book! If you like books that come together and are wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end, you won't care for this book. This book is an incredible story and the audio version is very well read by many different readers making it sound almost like a play. I now want to read the book.
14 of 17 people found this review helpful
I stuck with this tome because of my personal connection and infatuation with Jamaica, but it was a tough slog. The words in this book must be 35% profanities, and much of the rest is ugly beyond profanity. Yes, it aptly describes the human condition, yes the multiple character approach is interesting, if extremely hard to follow, and yes this book has a fair amount of authenticity being loosely based on actual events; --but do you really want to get all this filth and excrement on your brain?
Furthermore , it's one thing to have your brain dragged through human waste for awhile, but this book just goes on, and on, and on. Half of this muddy horror show could have been cut without losing any of the pith.
If you are wanting to delve deeper, and seemingly interminably into the descent of Jamaica's Kingston ghettos into Lord of the Flies savagery (along with other miscellaneous filth and depravity for gratuitous grossness), then the this book will do; --though Lord of the Flies is one of a goodly number of much better books, shorter and sharper, with more meaning and no F-bombs.
If you are not interested in closely studying some of the rottenest manifestations of human rottenness, but rather. you seek entertainment, well, "no here mon".
17 of 21 people found this review helpful
This book seems to have been written to be performed as an audiobook. The use of multiple narrators brought the story vividly life. The book was artfully written from multiple perspectives, which just made the narrative more engaging. The beautifully performed Jamaican patois would have been difficult to read, but was beautiful to listen to, despite the wrenching and painful story. Highly recommended!
15 of 19 people found this review helpful
This book will not be surpassed. Maybe equaled. The dialogue, the characters, the absence of sentimentality, the span of time, the characters and the details. Praise does not do it justice. Just start listening.
8 of 10 people found this review helpful