“If it no go so, it go near so. —Jamaican proverb”
Author: Marlon James
What 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