Let me start by saying this is one of the most misleading titles I've come across in my many years of reading. No, this is the most misleading title. First of all, there is nothing brief about A Brief History of Seven Killings. It is brief compared to Infinite Jest or War and Peace perhaps, but not by much. Not only is this a long book, but the language and structure make it feel much longer than its nearly 700 pages. Secondly, seven killings? I just know that someday someone is going to count every killing in this book and that number is going to be way more than seven. I'm tempted to do it myself, but I know I'd hate myself afterwards for actually taking the time. I'd guess that if you added up every killing mentioned, whether it be in the primary plot or in backstory, there would be closer to 150. So yeah, a brief history of seven killings, my ass.
Ironically, the title's inaccuracies highlight the two qualms I had with this book. First, that it seems unnecessarily long. This is especially true in the first half. Once the rhythm is established, the characters solidified, and the patois is deciphered, A Brief History... takes off, but it still seems longer than necessary. The second issue I had was that it was much too violent for my tastes. Sure, we're talking about some Big Don/Mafioso kind of story here, so it's expected, but my anabaptist sensibilities can only handle so much rape, dismemberment, and explosion of faces. I don't watch Tarantino films or subscribe to HBO for a reason; if this book were adapted for film I would not watch it.
Length and personal feelings about violence aside, A Brief History of Seven Killings isn't a bad novel at all. Its greatest strength surely rests in its skillful implementation of voice. Many characters are given time to tell their respective story in these pages, and Marlon James nails each. At first, it may be difficult for the reader to follow the Jamaican verbiage and the stream of conscious pattern some of the characters use, but stick with it and you will be greatly rewarded. From CIA agents to drug-addicted thugs, from kingpin of the mob to a journalist who knows “the real Jamaica,” James expertly gets into these characters brains and makes their words resonate. I'd have liked to have heard more from the victims and more from female characters, but I suspect the author had his reasons for only skimming the surface in regards to these perspectives. Even though this story mostly focuses on the powerful, there is plenty of pain in this novel; everybody hurts sometimes, even heartless killers.
Like the dialogue and the characters, the story is all over the place. It spans decades and places and subplots. Like much of this novel, if you stick with it, it mostly pays off in the end. I guess that's the briefest possible way I can sum up this novel: it's challenging, but it mostly pay off if you persevere.
Of the three Man Booker finalists I have read so far, this is my favorite. I don't think it has quite the magnitude and appeal required of the winner (I'm hoping one of the other three I have yet to finish show that), but it is a worthy finalist. Certainly, Marlon James is an author I will return to and one that will probably be up for many awards throughout his career.
One question I have, more as a footnote, is why write a book about a famous person, make it obvious whom you're writing about, but never mention the person by name? Referring to Bob Marley always as The Singer was slightly irritating. Other real people were mentioned in this book, people who are still alive and have more power than Marley had, and James said more slanderous things about them, so it doesn't seem he did so to protect himself. Is The Singer some kind of homage to Marley? Personally, I didn't like it. At least not in the dialogue. The Singer this, and The Singer that. I would've been like, What bomboclot singer are you pussyholes talking about? (Oh yeah, you'll definitely pick up some Jamaican slang if you read this novel.)