Sunday 4 June 2017

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Finished! I have been reading this book for a really long time. I picked it up at Kinyarwanda class last November. The chapters in all but one section are extremely short, only a few pages, so I've been reading a couple each night in between other stories.

One thing's for sure - it's anything but brief.

Almost 700 pages.

I have mixed feelings. Marlon James's writing is pure poetry. His use of language is an absolute delight, although this does make for tough going at times and, over multiple characters, it makes it hard to keep track of who's who. Although, the main characters: Alex, Nina, Papa-Lo, Josey Wales and Weeper are fairly easy to tell apart, which is a testament to James's characterisation. But there are a lot of small parts that jump in and out and don't always seem to tie in. There's a long list of characters at the beginning of the book, like the cast for a stage production. 

I fell into the start of the book. There's something really dark and enticing about the play between life and death, and the opening scene is a ghost, Sir Arthur George Jennings, explaining how the dead watch those who killed them. 

I really enjoyed the beginning, but by the end I was looking forward to the last page. As strongly character-driven as it was, each chapter a portrait of a person, there didn't seem to be much plot. Perhaps because all I'd heard about it was 'it's about the shooting of Bob Marley,' and maybe I was expecting a bit more of a whodunnit. Instead, the book goes heavily into the drug wars and gangland of Jamaica, which spills onto US soil. 

Several reviewers have apparently likened James's writing to 'Tarantino on paper,' and I think that's an accurate description. My own imagination walked past Proposition Joe's on a Baltimore corner, and Eubie became indistinguishable from Brother Mouzone in my mind. Perhaps a little taller. 

It really fits the genre, but the thick mash up of history and fiction made me feel an outsider throughout. Not being Jamaican, American or old enough, this part of history isn't on my cultural radar, and because all the main characters, and even the locations in Jamaica, have been given fictional names, I gave up Googling for answers. Alongside the four pages of character names, I would have appreciated a brief overview of the historical context. I started to drift because of that sense of disconnect, but I kept reading because of the language, and because I find it extremely difficult to put a book down once I've started it. There have been a few occasions, but it's rare.

There are screenshots in my head where the descriptive was so vividly painted that it was perfect. Josey in his cell, pacing. The bullet dance on the bridge. The Rasta execution. Papa-Lo's premonition. The crack house massacre. So real you could taste it. But quite a bit in between that felt like filler.

This Guardian review sort of sums it up: a bit stop-start.

Based on that, I think I'll take a look at John Crow’s Devil. 'Darkness and gore' does it for me, and I particularly liked the supernatural elements to this book. 

...if you kill me now right here I'll look you in the eye and stain myself in you head for as long as you live. I swear I'd haunt you like a motherfucker so hard that an exorcist would look at you and say goddamn, my son, there's really no help for you. 

I think my favourite line was probably:

I kick him like thunder and he jump like lightning.

And the juicy scent of:

...the kitchen was all bacon smell, crackle and pop. 

I also learnt the fun fact that (excuse spelling) rasscloth, bombocloth and bloodcloth are all insults apparently meaning sanitary pad.

An epic that makes you feel you've earned an ending. 

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