A Brief History of Seven Killings. Marlon James.

James, Marlon. A Brief History of Seven Killings. Penguin, New York, 2014. Electronically downloaded for Kindle. F/9/15.

You either love this book or you hate it, or maybe you both love it and hate it. In any case it’s hard to ignore. At times it’s brilliant, at times it’s tedious, and at times it’s incoherent. Forty percent of the way through I was for the fourth time on the verge of deleting it from my Kindle, but carried on having read two or three online reviews. There were raves, but also the same kind of ambivalence I’m talking about.

It reminded me by turns of Half-Blood Blues (to me disingenuous grasping for authenticity using patois), Book of Memories (trouble following the characters and plot), and The Woman who Lost her Soul (historic action somewhere close to the US and eventually in it, but bizarrely completely different from America).

There are about eight or ten main characters, one of whom appears under three names. Names are intriguingly similar suggesting relationships that didn’t, to me, makes sense, and the author adopts the point of view of those several characters chapter-by-chapter, which tends to create for the reader a bit of a roller coaster, since some of those characters appear a lot more interesting and coherent than others. The journalist Pierce for example describes a dream in which he recalls being convincingly outclassed in a conversation with one of the gangsters. This dream alternates with half-awake Pierce understanding that someone who has probably come to assassinate him is in real life seated on his bed, waiting for him to wake up. I found the that situation terrifying and masterfully handled.

But just as I got through something of that arresting quality, up comes the old master criminal Papa-Lo as narrator, also describing a dream sequence, in a chapter that ends with a five-page paragraph in patois that is at best kind of exotic but at worst, and more likely, pure nonsense. It feels like we’re trying for James Joyce-style stream of conscious action but trust me, Ulysses this isn’t.

Everyone talks obscenity, realistic enough considering the kind of characters we are dealing with, but it’s bizarrely nearly all menstrual in content which we are expected to take as (and probably is) authentically Jamaican. The most convincing and detailed sex scenes are homosexual which of course is okay, but I’m afraid I couldn’t avoid sensing the same kind of hijacking of point of view that lay underneath the very heavy doses of Jamaican underclass culture. I spend a fair bit of effort trying to balance myself between the right and the left, but run into the kind of trouble I’m having here when political correctness comes at me with what looks like an obvious chip on its shoulder.

It’s a long book. Overall on the positive side it’s complicated but carefully-thought-out, and there is some sparkling writing. Important character Nina Burgess, reincarnated as Kim Clarke, does an internal soliloquy which contains:

Sometimes I have to remind even him that three feet north of this vagina is a brain, and

The shit you can get away with when you’re making it up as you go along.

… do we catch a glimpse of Marlon James seeing himself in the mirror? I persevered to the surprising and interesting conclusion, but frequently put this book aside feeling as though there just wasn’t enough emotional and literary payoff for being dragged through an awful lot of human hideousness that was just credible enough to make it hard to lose the smell.

I find both style and content hard to score, because both can be very impressive but also no good at all.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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