What’s It About
In December 1976 Bob Marley returned to Jamaica to perform at the “Smile Jamaica” free concert. The event was aimed at easing tension between the two major political parties. Two days before the concert gunmen attacked Marley, his manager and his wife in the singer’s home. They all received gun wounds but survived.
Through the voices of those directly and indirectly involved in this one moment of violence and its aftermath, A Brief History tells a story of a Jamaica struggling to find an identity in among the guns, the violence and the competing interests of superpowers fighting their own Cold War.
Should I Read It?
Fuck yes. The novel is 700 pages long and switches between an array of characters and their unique voices. Some might find the early use of Jamaican patois – without a handy glossary – off-putting, but that’s why we have Google. And frankly the sheer power and rawness of the narrative will pull you past any confusing words you might encounter. (If you’re still not sure read the Representative Paragraphs below). James’ use of language and tone is remarkable.
This is a novel about a country overwhelmed by violence and the competing interests of capitalism and communism at the macro level and the growing popularity of Rastafari and reggae at the micro level. Bob Marley – never referred to by name, only as the Singer – is emblematic of that political and cultural divide.
Because this is a novel all about voice I’m going to provide three examples so you can get an idea of the range on display
Kim Clarke, shut up and get out of this shower. I need to cream my hair. Should I do that here or in America? It’s coming down to that with everything. Should I do it here or when I go to America? Jesus Christ, the day when I get bored with thirteen channels, what will I do? The day I get bored with corn flakes, no not corn flakes, Frosted Flakes. The day I get bored with looking up and seeing buildings that clouds hit and run into. The day I get bored with throwing out bread because it’s been there four days and I want a new loaf. The day I get bored with Twinkies, Halston, Lip Smackers, L’eggs and anything by Revlon. The day I get bored with sleeping straight from night to morning and waking up to the smell of coffee and the sound of birds and have Chuck say, Did you have a good night’s sleep, babykins? And I’ll say yes I did, sweetheart—instead of watching the dark all night, and listening to the damn clock tick, because once I fall asleep things come after me. I thought we were going to stop this thinking business, Kim Clarke. Seriously, thought is one tricky bitch. Because all thoughts take you back to that one thought and you will never go back to that one thought, you hear me? Never go back. Only stupid women ever walk backwards.
My son could use this sharpener. Fucking office is not going to miss one sharpener, and even if they do who gives a flying fuck? Like anybody in Jamaica is keeping any records. Sloppiest fucking place I’ve ever . . . actually that’s not true, Ecuador was far, far worse. I’m definitely getting angrier and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’re going back to fucking Argentina. I really don’t hate Argentina, and it will be nice to actually eat at an outside café and watch sexy Argentinian women for a change. It’s just this country. Shit. I’m not going to be the ten thousandth white man to fall for this country. I’m not falling for it. Or at least if I’m going to I should at least waste my life smoking pot in Treasure Beach with all the other washed-up hippies.
Nineteen sixty-six. No man who enter 1966 leave the way he come in. The fall of Balaclava take plenty, even those who support it. I did support, not quiet but loud. Balaclava was a piece of shit that make you beg for the richness of a tenement yard. Balaclava was where woman would dodge murder, robbery and rape only to get killed by a cup of water. Balaclava get bulldozed down so that Copenhagen City could rise, and when the politicians come in after the bulldozers with their promises they also demand that we drive all PNP man out. Before 1966, man from Denham Town and man from Jungle didn’t really like each other, but they fight each other on the football field and the cricket pitch and even when two boy get rowdy and a mouth get punched bloody, there was no war or rumour of war. But then politician come. Me welcome them because surely better must come for we too.
In the Acknowledgements to A Brief History of Seven Killings, James briefly talks about the challenges he faced writing the novel and his eventual epiphany:
The problem was that I couldn’t tell whose story it was. Draft after draft, page after page, character after character, and still no through line, no narrative spine, nothing. Until one Saturday, at W.A Frost in St.Paul, when I was having dinner with Rachel Perlmeter, she said what if it’s not one person’s story? […] I had a novel, and it was right in front me all that time. Half formed and fully formed characters, scenes out if place, hundreds of pages that needed sequence and purpose. A novel that would be driven only by voice.
First and foremost we, the reader, should be thanking Rachel Perlmeter (and buying her drinks) for providing James the spark that allowed him to see the shape of the novel. Who knows whether he would have completed the book without her asking that simple, yet profound, question.
Once he settles on the idea – a novel that would be driven only by voice – James totally embraces it. With a traditional third person narrative, the reader, detached and distanced from the text, would have been akin to the tourist who feels faux sympathy for the poor natives and their burden. However, by focusing on voice through a variety of first person accounts – both native and non native Jamaicans – you can’t help but feel part of the insanity.
And who are these voices? Well they include the following (not an exhaustive list):
- The ghost (yes ghost) of Sir Arthur Jennings, a former politician who died after being pushed off a balcony. Jennings’ introduces the novel and then appears at the end of each section (except for the last). His presence usually follows the death of a significant character;
- Josey Wales, the don of Copenhagen City who, who according to James (because the actual assailants were never found) was the architect of the attack on Marley. Wales’ voice is strident and confident and violent, providing the book with some of its most brutal passages;
- Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine who came to Jamaica in 1976 to interview Bob Marley only to find himself caught up in the attack on Marley’s home. Pierce’s investigation into the attempted murder of The Singer provides us with a white-man’s insight into the violence and political power games of the period.
But the most powerful voice in A Brief History is that of Nina Burgess. Given the novel’s brutality, the regular references to rape and sexual violence, Nina could easily have been an example of the Jamaican woman crushed by the power struggles between the gangs and the political parties. And there is a moment, when she’s walking home after spending the entire day camped outside Marley’s house (Nina had a brief liaison with the Singer that she wants him to acknowledge), where it looks like she’s about to become a victim at the hands of a corrupt pair of policeman. But in the back of the police car, listening to the cops talk, knowing that they’re not taking her home but somewhere private where they can have their way with her she begins to imagine what it might be like if they did rape her and the aftermath of that event. And when the moment of truth comes, when they turn to her and leer and ask her which one of them is cuter Nina, who knows how this is going to end, says:
If you going rape, rape me already and leave me in whichever ditch you leave woman. Just stop bore me with your r’asscloth mouth.
And I think I might have laughed out loud because the next thing that happens is that the cops take Nina home.
What’s remarkable about this scene isn’t that it’s an example of an empowered woman standing up to a threat of violence, it’s that it’s an example of woman realising how little power she has. It’s no surprise then that Nina is desperate to leave Jamaica, a desire that overwhelms her when, like Alex Pierce, she finds herself in Bob Marley’s house as the guns are firing. Nina spends a good deal of the novel trying to escape Jamaica, herself and her identity. Her story, though, isn’t one of weakness but of a woman coming to terms with her personal past and the violent past of her country.
Interestingly, while he’s central to the both the plot and the themes of the novel, Bob Marley is never given a voice. In fact he’s never referred to by name, instead called The Singer throughout the novel. This is the one distancing technique that James uses, as if to say that Marley is a distraction from the true voice of Jamaica – the people who scrape out an existence in the ghettos, or who strive for a better life somewhere else, or who spend each day manipulating those around them, currying favor with capitalists and communists. And yet it’s also clear that Marley is critical to the novel, that without his presence there is no story, there is no book. While he might not have a voice, he is emblematic of the dueling forces that faced Jamaica at the time – both on a political and cultural level.
Not everyone will be enamored by this powerful book. Some will find the violence, both physical and sexual, to be confronting. Others will stumble over the Jamaican patois or find the lack of likable characters hard to deal with (just read the one-star reviews on Amazon to see what I mean). But as much as I enjoy escapist fiction, what I really crave is a novel, like A Brief History of Seven Killings, that genuinely gets under my skin, that forces me to engage, that makes me see the world differently.