Literary Pop: A Brief History of Seven Killings

“If it no go so, it go near so. —Jamaican proverb”

Author: Marlon James
Nationality: Jamaican
Year: 2014

briefhistWhat eventually turned out to be the last book I read in January was A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize.  I had been becoming a little concerned that I would run out of 2015 books, having finished three already by the 16th, but honestly I needn’t have worried.  More about that later.  This was naturally a priority for January even though it soon transpired that it was actually published in 2014 (I’m willing to overlook the discrepancy if you are).   It’s the third novel by Jamaican author Marlon James, following 2005’s debut John Crow’s Devil and the well-received The Book of Night Women from 2009.

Take Trainspotting, transport it to Jamaica, double the number of characters, double the number of pages, add in an assassination attempt on a world-famous singer, and you’ve got A Brief History of Seven Killings.  The novel, told from the perspective of at least ten different characters in about five time periods, revolves around (and around and around) a fictional account of the planning, failure and aftermath of the real-life 1976 attempt on the singer’s life.  In a Kingston ruled by warring gangs and their devious leaders, nobody who plays a part in the plot is safe from the recriminations of one who wishes to keep his name out of the mud for good.

It was a decent book, but the combination of the facts that a) it was very hard to get into, and b) it was very long, made me seriously consider whether it was really worth it.  It’s against my moral fibre to abandon a book once I’ve committed to reading it but I can imagine many people putting Seven Killings down long before the end.  Unlike Trainspotting, which continues in the same vernacular and allows you to become accustomed, different characters in James’ novel speak with varying degrees of Jamaican patois which never allows you to feel comfortable (although maybe that’s deliberate). It’s probably telling that since finishing the novel at the end of January it’s taken me the best part of a month to gather up the strength to review it.  It’s not that it’s a bad book, just that it was a lot of work.  Indeed, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn lots I didn’t know about Jamaican language, history, and culture as well as the life and death of Marley.

I’m not one to recommend anyone against reading a book.  It wasn’t really for me at this time, and will probably remain not really for me because I don’t envision myself reading it again.  Nevertheless I think, all things considered, that it’s just about worth a read.  It did win the Booker Prize, after all.  But make your own mind up.  One thing I will say: be prepared.


My rating: 6/10

Literary Pop: A Spool of Blue Thread

Author: Anne Tyler
Nationality: American
Year: 2015


Spool of Blue ThreadNext on the list for 2016 was A Spool of Blue Thread, the 20th novel by the long-standing American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler.  I’d never read anything by her before and this Booker Prize shortlisted effort (in only the second year of eligibility for American authors) seemed as good a place to start as any.  She’s one of those authors I’ve seen around a lot (I work in a charity bookshop) without any standout classics to her name, yet I know she carries a good reputation among the reading public as well as the reviewing experts.  Reading this also continues my happy trend so far of reading books by women this year, although the streak will end here (for now).

The plot revolves around the Whitshank family, with an emphasis on matriarch Abby and her husband Red.  The Whitshanks, also comprising sons Denny and Stem, daughters Amanda and Jeannie, and their respective spouses and children, are a “typical” American family living in present-day Baltimore (though much of the narrative takes place in various recent pasts).  The novel takes place in three parts. In part one (the bulk of the book) Abby and Red are aging and the time has come for the younger generation to figure out what to do with their increasingly and reluctantly dependent parents.  Part two steps back in time to take a look at the earliest stages of Abby & Red’s courtship; part three chronicles the mysterious history of Red’s parents Junior and Linnie.  Time weaves back and forth around these main subject lines, as the “spool of blue thread” gradually winds and unwinds itself through the lives of the Whitshank family.

I liked it a lot.  I felt a little bit like an outsider at times, as the themes in the book are very reminiscent of Americana-like nostalgia in a way that didn’t entirely resonate with me, but in a way that actually heightened my curiosity in the strange-yet-normal setting and characters.  I particularly enjoyed how the second and third parts gradually explained some of the intriguing goings-on in the first (often contradicting the accepted family version of events) and it makes me almost want to read it again with my new-found expert knowledge.

It’s a great relief sometimes to read a nice, normal novel without having to deal with highbrow writing styles, deep dramatic themes and the like.  Tyler seems to be an honest and unpretentious author who doesn’t have to try too hard to write something eminently readable.  And so I will definitely look out for her books in future (as if I needed to add another back catalogue to my to-read list).   Overall I would highly recommend A Spool of Blue Thread – it’s not a ground-breaker, but it’s a page-turner, and sometimes that’s all you need from a book.


My rating: 8/10