A Brief History of Seven Killings is centred around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. It’s told from the perspectives of different gang members and dons, politicians, CIA operatives, a journalist, and a woman trying to find her escape, across three decades and two countries. It’s brutal and violent and messy and genius.
This is a book that takes a few chapters to get into – James drops you into the story and the many characters and doesn’t do it gently (there is a character list at the beginning which is really helpful to flip back to when you can’t remember which gang member belongs where). But, gradually, the various plot threads and characters come together and seemingly unimportant side-notes make sense.
The brilliance of James’ writing is not just in his way of weaving this complicated story; he also has an incredibly controlled quality, even where the narration is messy and broad. Every character has a distinct voice (often missing in books with this many perspectives), but a character’s dialect also shifts, often subtly, depending on their mood, situation, or who they are trying to portray themselves as when talking to particular people. Some of the chapters are more like a stream of consciousness, no punctuation, and add a pace and realism to a narrator’s thought process when being buried alive or high on too much coke.
I nearly always think books of 700-ish pages could be shorter, and I prefer shorter books, but A Brief History is one of those rare longer books that I don’t think wastes a page. The story needs this space to show why and how every character is in the actual or mental place they find themselves in. As Alex, the journalist in the book says:
Well, at some point you gotta expand on a story. You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope. Shit doesn’t just happen in a void, there’re ripples and consequences and even with all that there’s still a whole fucking world going on, whether you’re doing something or not. Or else it’s just a report of some shit that happened somewhere and you can get that from the nightly news.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a book for everyone, but I urge you to give it a try (I’ve heard the audiobook is good, so if reading narration in dialect puts you off, listening to it instead might help). It won’t make sense at first, and it is always brutal, but it will come together, and you will be in awe of it.
Want to win A Brief History of Seven Killings? I got two copies for Christmas so I have this shiny unread copy to give away. Just a leave a comment below by 25th May and I’ll draw a name out of a hat. Open worldwide.