Brief? Irony, not misrepresentation. Anyone picking up the Jamaican writer Marlon James's third novel already knows it isn't a "brief" history of anything, because picking it up is difficult unless you use both hands. Though the physical length of the book - a little under 700 pages - isn't the half of it. Try this sample sentence:
"That do it, one scream lead to another scream and in the candle-flashlight a white woman scream but drop her syringe and she dive to the floor but land face-first and the needle stick right through her bottom lip but she flinging garbage left and right looking for it and people all around her coming out of the dark and limping and hopping and crawling and running now."
I wanted to give you something longer and more flavourful, but "flavour" here equates to "not printable in this newspaper", and the longest sentences in the book would exceed the total length of this review. Nor is any one sentence really representative; James uses a double handful of first-person narrators, each of whom gets their own distinctive voice, and these voices shift and mutate over time. (The book's many tangled storylines play out over the course of several decades.) Many of the voices are Jamaican, and many of these use rarified street dialects; what all the voices share is a stream-of-consciousness quality which requires serious concentration to decode. I found my normal prose reading pace was about halved for most of the book's length. (The chapter written in free verse was by far the easiest to parse.)
James' story - which features so many more killings than seven that my attempt to keep count foundered - centres on the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Marley left the country shortly afterwards, and stayed away for years, making the event a significant bellwether moment in the influx of guns, international manipulations and violence that transformed Jamaica in the 70s.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
This transformation, and the whole idea of large-scale social transformation and its relationship to the individuals who live through it, is James' real subject. His ambition is as admirable as his stylistic virtuosity is impressive, and if you enjoy adventurous language and have the stomach for extreme violence, the book is certainly worth experiencing. The vivid depictions of brutality aside, my major reservation is with James's more-is-more approach to dramatising social complexity. There are so many threads to follow that the big picture tends to get lost in the tangle. Which is part of the point, of course. But it makes the book easier to admire than to enjoy.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
by Marlon James
(One World $39.99)
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.