Bullets Over Kingston

A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Marlon James

Marlon James’s latest novel has received numerous accolades, the most recent of which is the National Book Critics Circle nomination for best fiction book. James deserves all for a richly complex, insightful, and visceral novel.

In his new outing, James sets himself the very large task of taking us behind and inside the turmoil of the Jamaican Elections of 1976 and 1978, including the before (that included the shooting of Bob Marley, his wife, and his business manager), the “clean-up” following (in short, bloody wholesale murders), gang skirmishes for dominance, political intrigues involving the CIA fearing that PNP victory meant closer ties to Cuba, and what musician (called the Singer) Bob Marley’s role in all this was and wasn’t.

What makes the job so large is that for most people Jamaica is nothing more than a vacation spot and history be damned. Nonetheless, intrigue and gang warfare is a big draw and you’ll find it aplenty here. But be forewarned, it is bloody and brutal and harrowing in a thousand different ways, not the least of which is the zombizing of young boys into coldblooded killers. Sometimes you’ll just have to stop because it gets to be too much to bear.

While this may sound straightforward, prepare yourself for anything but. The novel follows a linear chronological route; however, within the big section divides you’ll find much jumping about. You’ll also find very long stretches of Jamaican dialect that James has modified quite a bit, probably for reasons of accessibility. These two elements, which can be challenging at times, really make this novel the standout that it is. James, with his tone, his rawness, his descriptive powers, and his intimate understanding of his homeland, puts you in the midst of the turmoil and into the minds of the gang leaders, the CIA agents, the disposable boys, and other characters, so you feel and taste the Jamaica of these murderous years.

As I read A Brief History of Seven Killings, I found myself thinking about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s really impressive breakout film Amores Perros. You might think of this as well, and wonder what Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga might do with James’s powerful and evocative novel.

While Seven Killings may at first seem a difficult read, you’ll find yourself after the first several pages getting into rhythm with James’s style and into a very compelling story. c/w

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