For more than a week after I finished Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, I couldn't get it out of my head.
There are several aspects of this book I was primed to dislike, but after seriously contemplating quitting, I decided to keep reading and it began to grow on me. And then it grabbed me and wouldn't let go.
A myriad of voices tell the complicated story of Jamaican politics and drugs in the 1970s, focused on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. The story also skips forward in time to Miami and New York in 1985-1991, and wraps in CIA agents, politicians, gang leaders and members, and a smattering of minor characters, all speaking their own truths in their own voices. A list at the beginning of the book helps keep everyone straight and provides an interesting echo of other complex sagas such as War and Peace.
With politics and drugs as the subject matter, there's plenty of intrigue, crime, violence, cruelty, and desperation, but described in the words of the characters, these are a shot with a silencer: they don't make a lot of fancy literary noise but their impact is deep and lasting. I confess I skipped a few sentences when things got too heavy, and I have no regrets.
I know a book has gotten ahold of me when I keep thinking about it long after I turn the final page. Not only did James's characters and plot details continue to ricochet around in my brain during odd moments, but on several occasions I nearly used the book's distinctive vocabulary in my own speech.
And if you can imagine me -- a white woman of a certain age -- thinking of using a term like "bombocloth" (the all-purpose Jamaican equivalent of the F word), you'll appreciate how thoroughly this book caught me in its net of words.
Excerpt (Nina Burgess waits outside Bob Marley's house):
Car three hundred and sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy. Seventy-one, seventy-two. I need to go home. But I'm outside here, waiting on him. You ever feel like home is the one place you can't go back to? It's like you promise yourself when you got out of bed and combed your hair that this evening, when I get back I'll be a different woman in a new place. And now you can't go back because the house expects something from you. A bus stops. I fan it off, trying to tell the driver that I don't want to get on. But the bus is still squatting there, waiting on me. I step back and look down to the road, pretending that people aren't in the bus cussing that they have home to get to and plenty pickney to feed so why that damn woman don't get on the bus. I walk away, far enough for the bus to drive off, but walk right back to the bus stop before the dust settle.
The bass creeps up on me from across the road. It sounds like he's been playing the same song all day. It sounds like another song about me, but there's probably two dozen women in Jamaica right now and another two thousand in the world who think the same thing anytime a song of his come on the radio. But "Midnight Ravers" is about me.