“Well, at some point you gotta expand on a story. You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope.”
On December 3rd, 1976, gunmen broke into Bob Marley’s house and shot the singer. It happened in the weeks leading up to the Jamaican general election, and just two days before Marley was due to headline the Smile Jamaica Concert. In theory, the concert was meant to be a call to peace, as poverty and crime and violence threatened to completely drown the nation. But some on the street saw the concert as Marley’s tacit support of the ruling governmental party. As violence teemed, as the political became personal, as the wrong answer to the wrong people would guarantee a bullet in your brain, as the CIA remained (not quite) behind the scenes, propping up murderers and psychopaths as long as they weren’t commies, seven men barged into Marley’s house, guns blazing. They were never caught. Marley played the concert and moved to London. He stayed away for two years.
If that sounds like a lot for one book…well I haven’t even gotten to the ghosts yet. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings is a busy book, with about a dozen narrators, spanning decades, countries and even life and death. For those of us whose knowledge of Marley is limited to some Greatest Hits albums and the poster found in every reefer-lover’s dorm room, this book is even more of a trip. James makes no effort to slow down for the uninitiated; it’s our responsibility to do our research and hang on for the ride. Characters include wanna-be assassins, CIA agents, a woman with a changing name, politicians, journalists, drug-loving gangbangers, ghetto “godfathers” and the aforementioned ghost. Even slightly more ghostly is Bob Marley, referred to as “The Singer” throughout the book. Sounds like a lot? “What kind of journalist would you be if you don’t want to know the backstory” one character asks another in prison.
This novel isn’t for everyone. There are a ton of POV characters clamoring for space in the 700 page book. Especially in the first half of the book, I spent a lot of time flipping to the character list, trying to keep everyone straight. The dialect for (some) of the characters takes some getting used to as well, and once you feel like you’re getting it, the POV changes again. It’s not a book you can read in little 15-minute increments. This book is work, probably more than some casual fiction readers are willing to put in. But the book is also genius. It reminds me a lot of Roberto Bolano’s work, especially The Savage Detectives and 2666. If you think this book sounds good, then strap in and enjoy The (not so brief) History of (slightly more than) Seven Killings.