A Brief History of Seven Killings is a wide-ranging historical drama that takes you from the youngest survivor of Jamaican slums in the 1970s to the drug wars of New York in the 80s, from the attempted murder of Bob Marley to the CIA’s entry into the ”War on Drugs”. It is a story of incredible violence spiraling out from Jamaica and the people who lived it, survived it, and practiced it. There are equal parts beauty and horror.
Brief History is a challenging book because it has many voices, all ringing true, in many dialects. They weave the story in and out of the slums, the offices, and cities while telling a fictional version of the Tivoli Gardens based drug gang the “Shower Posse”, which has centers in American cities as well as Toronto. Bob Marley is only mentioned as the Singer, but a central part of the narrative revolves around him. James’ storytelling uses these different voices as point and counterpoint, with heartbreak, despair, exultation and bravado flavoring the spirit of the story.
It’s these very voices which can, at times, make reading this book a struggle. Some dialects are so thick that it is slow going, between native slang, abbreviations, and idioms that I could only read a couple of chapters before I had to put it down. Every night I put it down, and the next night I picked it up again, because as the book moves forward, the voices become less spread out and the narrative becomes that much more compelling.
James has an astonishing fluency and command of language. Creating a narrative structure in the middle of what was, essentially, chaos is an astonishing feat, and is probably what lead to the book winning the 2015 Booker Prize. It’s an enthralling read, as long as you are willing to let the narrative develop.