Friday, 19 February 2021

'A Brief History of Seven Killings' by Marlon James

This is the second time I’ve read this book and on both occasions I’ve absolutely loved it.  It starts in mid seventies Jamaica and charts the rise, spread and fall of the Kingston gangs over a fifteen year period.  The story, like its protagonists and their chaos, crosses the Caribbean into mainland USA in the second half of the book.  Starting with the attempted assassination of ‘The Singer’ in 1976 when eight gunmen entered the yard on Hope Road and the happy stoned vibe was shattered forever, ‘Seven Killings’ chronicles the eventual demise of those involved and very many more literally caught in the crossfire. 

This is much, much more than a book about Yardie gangbangers, there are so many more themes running through it; How Jamaican politics has exploited and brutalised the island’s population, the effect of US foreign policy/interference on smaller, poorer nations.  The drug trade and how politicians helped it grow, both knowingly and unwittingly. These were major reasons for the mass migration away from a supposed tropical paradise.  James also deals with sex and sexuality in the macho Caribbean.  Then there is racism – obviously.  The author takes all of these things and examines their effects on all aspects of society from the top rankin’ to ordinary people.  The book is coke fuelled and brutal, it is shocking and sad then crack headed and sickening but authentic all the way through.  Expect to find yourself tip toeing through shanties, wading through shit and running for your life from gunmen.

Reading ‘Seven Killings’ is consuming, all I wanted to do was read and all the distractions of life were just obstacles that conspired to prevent me getting to the next bit, even though on second reading I already knew what was going to happen.  I still felt the heat, horror, the sadness and the relief.  When I got to the end I didn’t want to leave the world that Marlon James has created, I wanted to pick it up and start again from page one and I’ve felt like this after both readings.

The first time I read the book I knew that many of the events in the first half of the story were based on actual events but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I learnt that almost all of the major happenings were based on fact, this includes crackhouse massacres, funerals and prison fires.  That these things actually happened is almost unbelievable and very sad, how could a world like this exist?  Knowing the truth it becomes even more obvious that many of the characters are real people albeit with changed names, this includes gangsters and politicians, (If you can’t work out who ‘The singer’ is then this book probably isn’t for you…).  I suspect in many cases this is done for legal reasons as that certain musician’s estate would probably phone the lawyers in a second but also Marlon James would have a very real fear of personal reprisal from gangs that still exist.  But it’s hard to get your head around the fact that these people, these lives and experiences were real.  I say ‘were’ because there are few survivors.

I am a life long constant reader and this is one of the best books I have ever read, I will definitely read it again one day, in fact I’m looking forward to it as there are things I still haven’t worked out.  You don’t have to be a reggae fan, but it helps.  You don’t have to have a connection to the region but that helps too.  You do need a stomach for violence and depravity vividly brought to life but if you can look beyond that you’ll find love, joy and wicked humour.  This is a book that will not leave you with any doubts, you may hate it but if you don’t there will be no middle ground and you will find yourself loving it.  Do yourself a favour and read it if you dare.

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