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: Wolf Hall

“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.”

Author: Hilary Mantel
Year: 2009
Nationality: British

I’ve been making an effort recently to get more in touch with some modern literature – partly because I feel I shouldn’t get too stuck in the past, and partly because recent novels seem on the whole to be more easily readable than their older counterparts.  Counterintuitively therefore I picked up Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s 650-page Booker Prize-winning epic about the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII (I’m led to believe the fall will follow in parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy).

Wolf Hall follows Cromwell on his journey from beaten blacksmith’s son to one of the most powerful men in the realm, chronicled through a number of wolfhallhistorical events, focussing on the dissolution of Henry’s first marriage (to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon) and the installation of his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as Queen.  The tale is wrought with the current of Henry’s battle with the Roman Catholic Church, and ends with (spoilers) the execution of Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor and perennial thorn-in-the-side. (To hear this story from the other side, watch 1966’s Best Picture winner, A Man for All Seasons, in which More is the hero and Cromwell a villain (yawn)).  Through his wit, intelligence and intricate knowledge of the law, Cromwell rises through various posts to become the king’s most trusted adviser and the man to whom everyone turns to get things done.  He overcomes his association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and finds himself intimately connected with the Howards and the Boleyns (because it probably seemed like a good idea at the time).  By the end of the book he has risen to an unheralded superiority in the kingdom – but what goes up, must come down…

I won’t lie, it’s not an easy read. Particularly at the start the somewhat ambiguous nature of the dialogue and the fact that roughly 70% of the men are called Thomas makes it hard to get to grips with.  The huge, ever-changing pool of characters doesn’t help, but (fortunately?) the book is long enough to give the reader ample opportunity to get used to proceedings.
Throughout the book, I gained respect and regard for Cromwell, and when I eventually get round to reading Bring Up the Bodies and the to-be-released finale it will be disappointing to read of his downfall.  This is an curious experience for me, because I’ve never really been into historical fiction before, which has the caveat that whatever the action, the end result will be the same.  I am however gaining a little insight into the genre, and it’s interesting to think (again, thinking of A Man for All Seasons) how the author of a work can spin history to favour one character or another.  Not that I’m accusing Hilary Mantel of having any political motive, of course.  I’m sure she’s not like that at all.  It also has the additional bonus of teaching me a bit about history (taken with a large pinch of salt), and I like learning.  More for me in future, I think.

 

My Rating: 8/10