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Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’ve got one day of holiday left before I go back to work and I’m feeling sad that I’m not going to have as much time to read as I have over the last two weeks.

My reading really slowed down during November and December, partly due to life getting very busy, but also partly due to me struggling to read the Jamaican gangster/politics novel A Brief History of Seven Killings over a whole month.

Despite having totally clogged up my reading schedule and feeling like the longest book I’ve ever read, I do think it’s a worthy Man Booker winner, as it transports you to a different world, and it’s such an amazingly complex construction of so many lives.  I was very glad to come across this timely article from the LRB which explains how the fictional political shenanigans map onto real life, and pretty much provides a far better ad more comprehensive critical run down than I ever could.   I haven’t been so much in need of a “York Notes” style crib sheet since reading To the Lighthouse for A-level.  (Although the York Notes for TTL were rubbish – I still didn’t understand it afterwards.)

I think it’s no coincidence that Brief History and To the Lighthouse are both written using the stream of consciousness technique.  I’d read about people having trouble getting through Brief History because of the style, so went into the first chapter having decided to try to “immerse” myself in the feel of the words rather than worry about what every single thing meant.  I think I came out of the experience not too badly, and actually quite exhilarated by the high adrenaline opening action.  It was just a bit much to realise that, after all that effort and self-congratulation, I was only about 2% through the book.  Since about 95% of published books follow a rough format regarding plot and character developments, I can quite often read books very quickly by working out what each of the sections maps to.  It just wasn’t possible with this book, part of the Marlon James had in writing it was how unconventional the plot and character developments became.  In the end he said that he just had to go with the way the book was going.

Reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride a few days ago reminded me of how well I thought the voices in Brief History were done.  There was a sliding scale through the characters from standard English, through standard English with a lot of Jamaican slang, to really very difficult to understand patois.  The voices seemed very authentic and therefore to have a point, whereas I am still not sure what the unusual voice in Half-Formed was supposed to signify.

Brief History was also refreshingly funny.  A lot of the humour centred around the incompetence of some of the gangsters, but there was also humour in the attitudes of the different classes of characters towards each other.

I’m glad I read this, but I’m also hoping not to come across any similarly tough reading experiences in the near future.

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8 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading this book for two months now and I’m still only about halfway through. It has been one of the slowest going books I’ve read in the last several years.

    • There’s something about this book that makes it so, isn’t there?? I am wondering whether any of the Man Booker judges had to pretend that they had finished when they hadn’t. Also the bloke who wrote the LRB article has to be one of the cleverest people in the world.

  2. I’m feeling your pain about the vacation coming to an end, Denise. I only had five days off, but boy did they go fast. It seems we never get everything accomplished that we’d like.
    Thanks for the review!

    • It took me a whole week off just to get properly back into reading and writing. It’s amazing how much space your brain needs to expand into it.

    • It will be interesting to know what you think if you do read it – I have seen the book mentioned on blogs as much as some of the other Man Booker reads, I think because it is daunting and people are dreading picking it up.

  3. I approached this the same way you did, just immersing myself in the language and not worrying about details. I know I missed a lot, but I loved the writing. And thanks for the LRB link–from reading that, I can see that I did miss a lot. But I was able to follow enough to enjoy it, which is what matters most 🙂 But I agree with you that I wouldn’t want all the books I read to be like this one.

    • It was good fun to try a different approach to reading. And I think it contributed to the feeling of lawlessness across the land – the arbitrary nature of the way people got caught up in the violence even if they had resolved to live a quiet life.

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