Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Marlon James 978-1-59448-600-5   Riverhead 688 Pages; First Printing: October 2014

Death and war are inescapable in A Brief History of Seven Killings, and both are ongoing. The first of several narrators is a dead politician who yearns to haunt and do harm to the man who killed him. What makes this amazing novel shine is Marlon James’s ability to depersonalize a story, the type of historical retelling many writers tend to romanticize. James achieves this by deconstructing the many myths that surround several archetypes, particularly the shady government operatives who destroy countries and governments, and the dons and gunmen who rule the ghetto.
Along the way, James embraces and dispenses many fictional elements used in the western cowboy films, the globetrotting spy novels and the drug dealing tales. Separated into five sections, the first three are set on the island of Jamaica and the various first-person narratives convey the mood, voice and visuals. Once the story moves to the United States, Miami and, primarily, New York, much of these elements do not shine through, which can be excused since the lens is narrower, that of the immigrant characters, who technically might not be able to give as much historical weight to the new landscape. The fault does not lie there because the earlier parts of the story dealt with a greater scope – an assassination attempt on The Singer, and influencing the country’s elections. The final two parts deal with people ridding themselves of national identity and expectations with two key figures being a woman on the run from her past for many reasons, and a drug dealer getting lost in his own acceptance of his homosexuality and drug usage. The latter asks and makes a profound statement, whether the man who takes it up the ass can be the more manly one in the homosexual union. Juxtaposed with the historical backdrop presented in the earlier sections where foreign governments interfere and seemingly call the shots in relations with smaller countries, these last two parts round out A Brief History of Seven Killings, a grenade to literary form and respectability politics.

Recommendation: HIGH to HIGHEST


Reviewed by Guichard Cadet