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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel

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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel

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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Named a best book of the year by:
The Chicago Tribune
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From the acclaimed author of The Book of Night Women comes an engrossing, richly detailed epic that explores the tumultuous world of Jamaica over the past three decades.

In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James combines brilliant storytelling with his unrivaled skills of characterization and meticulous eye for detail to forge an enthralling novel of dazzling ambition and scope.

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert to ease political tensions in Kingston, seven gunmen stormed the singer’s house, machine guns blazing. The attack wounded Marley, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Little was officially released about the gunmen, but much has been whispered, gossiped and sung about in the streets of West Kingston. Rumors abound regarding the assassins’ fates, and there are suspicions  that the attack was politically motivated.

A Brief History of Seven Killings delves deep into that dangerous and unstable time in Jamaica’s history and beyond. James deftly chronicles the lives of a host of unforgettable characters – gunmen, drug dealers, one-night stands, CIA agents,  even ghosts – over the course of thirty years as they roam the streets of 1970s Kingston, dominate the crack houses of 1980s New York, and ultimately reemerge into the radically altered Jamaica of the 1990s. Along the way, they learn that evil does indeed cast long shadows, that justice and retribution are inextricably linked, and that no one can truly escape his fate.

Gripping and inventive, shocking and irresistible, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a mesmerizing modern classic of power, mystery, and insight.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
How to describe Marlon James's monumental new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings? It's like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja. It's epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It's also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting—a testament to Mr. James's vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.
The New York Times Book Review - Zachary Lazar
There is always too much history to keep track of…and so a certain kind of novel has evolved to shape narratives out of such chaos, not to find answers, but to capture the way history feels, how it maims, bewilders, enmeshes us…[A Brief History of Seven Killings is] an epic of postcolonial fallout, in Jamaica and elsewhere, and America's participation in that history. In the end, the book is not only persuasive but tragic, though in its polyphony and scope it's more than that…Spoof, nightmare, blood bath, poem, A Brief History of Seven Killings eventually takes on a mesmerizing power. It makes its own kind of music, not like Marley's, but like the tumult he couldn't stop.
Publishers Weekly
★ 07/14/2014
There are many more than seven killings in James’s (Dayton Literary Peace Prize winner for The Book of Night Women) epic chronicle of Jamaica’s turbulent past, but the centerpiece is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on December 3, 1976. Through more than a dozen voices, that event is portrayed as the inevitable climax of a country shaken by gangs, poverty, and corruption. Even as the sweeping narrative continues into 1990s New York, the ripples of Jamaica’s violence are still felt by those who survived. James’s frenetic, jolting narrative is populated by government agents, ex-girlfriends, prisoners, gang members, journalists, and even ghosts. Memorable characters (and there are several) include John-John K, a hit man who is very good at his job; Papa-Lo, don of the Copenhagen City district of Kingston; and Josey Wales, who begins as Papa-Lo’s head enforcer but ends up being a major string-puller in the country’s most fateful events. Much of the conflict centers on the political rivalry of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP), which involves everyone from the CIA (which comes off as perennially paranoid about “isms,” namely communism) to the lowest Jamaican gang foot soldier. The massive scope enables James to build an incredible, total history: Nina Burgess, who starts the book as a receptionist in Kingston and ends as a student nurse in the Bronx, inhabits four different identities over the course of 15 years. She is undoubtedly one of this year’s great characters. Upon finishing, the reader will have completed an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica’s troubled years. This novel should be required reading. (Oct.)
Library Journal
James follows the violent 1976 invasion of Bob Marley's home and its aftermath: spanning countries, decades, and characters. (LJ 7/14)
Kirkus Reviews
An assassination attempt on Bob Marley stokes this sweeping portrait of Jamaica, encompassing a host of gangsters, CIA agents, journalists and businessmen.Marley is never mentioned by name in the third novel by James (The Book of Night Women, 2009, etc.). But “the singer” is unmistakably him, and the opening chapters, set in late 1976, evoke an attempt on his life sparked by tensions between gangs representing rival political parties. (In reality, as in the novel, the singer was wounded and went into exile in England.) And though we never hear Marley in his own voice, James’ massive novel makes room for pretty much everybody else’s. Most prominent are Papa-Lo and Josey Wales, kingpins of the Copenhagen City gangs; Barry, a cynical CIA agent with orders to stop the march of communism though the red menace is the least of the island’s problems; Alex, aRolling Stonereporter assigned to cover Marley who becomes enmeshed with the gangs; and Nina, who had a fling with Marley. As in his previous novels, James is masterful at inhabiting a variety of voices and dialects, and he writes unflinchingly about the violence, drug-fueled and coldblooded, that runs through the island’s ghettos. Moreover, he has a ferocious and full character in Nina, who persistently reboots her life across 15 years, eventually moving to New York; her story exemplifies both the instinct to escape violence and the impossibility of shaking it entirely. But the book is undeniably overstuffed, with plenty of acreage given to low-level thugs, CIA-agent banter and Alex’s outsider ramblings about Jamaican culture. James’ fiction thus far is forming a remarkable portrait of Jamaica in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the novel’s sprawl can be demanding.An ambitious and multivalent, if occasionally patience-testing, book.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Have you ever heard the word duppy? A duppy, in Jamaican folklore, is a ghost that walks among the living and sometimes makes its presence known — especially to those who are about to die. If you're a wicked person nearing a violent end, a duppy is liable to creep up on you and taunt you, get up in your grill, and slick your face with its thick demon slobber. Once a duppy grabs hold of you, you can't get away ? how do you flee something that isn't there? Small consolation: the duppy can't go anywhere either. Trapped in time, nonliving but sentient, it endlessly relives the horrors it witnessed in life, "the train that never stopped running until it ran off the rails, the ledge from that building sixteen floors up, the car trunk that ran out of air. Rudeboys' bodies bursting like pricked balloons, fifty-six bullets."

In A Brief History of Seven Killings, the novelist Marlon James writes like a man possessed — haunted by a murky, brutal chapter in the history of his native Jamaica that won't let him go. Back in the 1970s, deep in the Cold War, Jamaica was riven by a fight between two political factions: the socialist People's National Party (PNP) and the comparatively conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). On December 3, 1976, a band of armed thugs from Kingston's shantytowns invaded the Hope Road compound of the reggae superstar Bob Marley and tried to kill him, two days ahead of a peaceable free concert called "Smile Jamaica," which some saw as an advertisement for the ruling PNP. Scores of shots were fired in the attack, which was motivated partially by revenge for a horse-racing scam Marley had nothing to do with, partially by political feuds. Perhaps. At the end of the shooting spree, Marley, his wife, and his manager all had been seriously wounded. They survived — Marley even managed to perform at the concert — but the wave of anger, vice, and greed that precipitated the assault swept through Jamaican society for years after, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, even thousands. So much for "One Love."

James's magisterial, viscerally lyric epic begins on the eve of this shooting and travels forward two decades, reaching from the Cold War to the War on Drugs, from Jamaica to the United States, England, and Colombia. He does not so much explain why Kingston's underworld turned on Jamaica's national hero — and on itself — as to explore the how, resurrecting the turf wars, ambitions, passions, whims, and bloodlust that drove the culture of violence before and after 1976. In any case, there could be no adequate reason for the hellish acts of cruelty his novel records: in the words of the character Bam-Bam, a teenager who watches a shanty gang leader sexually violate his father before murdering him, "Killing don't need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness." At fifteen, Bam-Bam will shoot Marley's wife, or try to, while hepped up on coke — one of eight boys in "two Datsuns white / Like duppy" who become hapless tools for shantytown enforcers. "Bitch fly and crash on the ground / 'Bout she was going make a clean getaway," Bam-Bam exults, exhilarated by the mayhem. But there's to be no clean getaway for anyone, James shows: rough justice comes to guilty and innocent alike in this novel, "concentric circles all leading to one bull's eye," and no mercy can come from "man who born with no light in them eye."

A duppy leads off James's symphony of voices — Sir Arthur George Jennings, a man who was pushed off a balcony in Montego Bay some time past and woke up a ghost with a "pumpkin- smashed head." Artie is burdened for eternity to remember victims of the madness of his times, "boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning, but each of them as they pass me carry the sweet- stink scent of the man that killed me." Anyone who thinks dead men tell no tales stands corrected: "Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear," Artie explains. "When you're dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours and there's nothing to do but stay and wander awhile." The same holds true for the living, James suggests, as a vast cast of characters add their solos to the duppy's — gangland dons and politicians; reporters and spies; corrupt cops and hit men; groupies, wives, and junkies — all of them caught up in a spiral with no way out, all of them thinking they'll make it to a nonexistent exit.

The sharp-edged pleasures of this book come from its protean, potent language. Each of James's characters speaks in a distinct (though sometimes shifting) voice and dialect. Weeper, an educated man who turns cop killer after being tortured in Babylon prison, has two modes. "When he talk like a Jamaican he talk all coarse and evil. When he talk like a white man, he sound like he reading a book with big word." Papa-Lo and Josey Wales, the dons of the Copenhagen City gang, which is affiliated with the JLP, often "chat bad" — studding their soliloquies with chewy bits of patois, like "bombocloth," "rahtid," "pum-pum," "r'asscloth," "battyman," "pussyhole," and "bloodclaat." Other characters speak with the jaded fluency of a Tom Wolfe journalist, the burly, profane terseness of an Elmore Leonard tough, or the careful English diction of a girl who wants you to know she had a proper upbringing even if she doesn't act like it. Among the hundred-odd voices that recur in these 700 pages, a handful stand out. There's Barry DiFlorio, a CIA agent in Kingston who monitors the Communist threat drifting south from Cuba. There's Nina Burgess, an unemployed receptionist who deludes herself with the fantasy that Bob Marley or an American lover will put her on a plane to New York. There's Alex Pierce, a Rolling Stone journalist who blunders into homicide; and much later, John-John K, a gay hit man in the pay of the Medellín cartel, and Eubie, a cold-blooded, calculating Columbia Law School dropout who becomes an enforcer for a New York drug gang. Their overlapping tales repeat and circle, gradually revealing their interconnection, blending and magnifying each other's impact.

If, while reading this sprawling saga, you feel like you're reading a pulp fiction version of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, you are not mistaken. The author writes that it was rereading Faulkner that allowed him to find a structure that could unify this babel of voices, eliciting the jangling harmonies that thread through them. But, as with Faulkner, the artistry of James's invention requires intense focus to follow; the chorus emerges slowly, and the reader cannot know the song before its singers do. James lets the learning come after — a disturbing lesson whose rough music builds and resonates, achieving coherence only in its lingering echo. "People think me understand everything to the fullness," Papa-Lo reflects, as he attempts to untangle the roots of the Marley shooting. "But Jah know, sometimes I don't learn till too late."

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, appeared in the summer of 2013. In the fall, her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, was published by Simon & Schuster.

Reviewer: Liesl Schillinger

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594486005
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/2/2014
  • Pages: 704
  • Sales rank: 868
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Marlon James was born in Jamaica, in 1970. He is the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. James lives in Minneapolis. 

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