Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: A review



What an ordeal this book was to read! Many times while perusing its 700-plus pages, I asked myself why I was bothering. But, true to my code of finishing what I start, I persevered and, in the end, felt somewhat vindicated, although I can't pretend that the rewards were really commensurate with the effort required.  

Jamaican writer Marlon James' book was the 2015 winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. At the time that it came out, I read many glowing reviews of the work. Intrigued, I added it to my reading queue and, finally, here at the end of 2016, its turn came up. Even though I knew the broad outlines of the story and the author's method, I was clearly not prepared for what I was undertaking.

A Brief History of Seven Killings begins with the run-up to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (referred to as the Singer throughout the book) in January, 1976. It continues through the political unrest of the '80s and '90s in Jamaica and the crack wars of that period in New York. It contains a mind-boggling number of characters (more than 75) and many of them get a turn to tell the story, as the narrator changes from one chapter to the next. 

Throughout, the story is full of violence (there are a lot more than seven killings here!) and profanity, and much of it is told in a Jamaican patois that was virtually impenetrable for me. I was reading the book on Kindle and the dictionaries and Wikipedia available to me there were just as confused as I was. 

Bombocloth? Duppy? Pussyhole? Fi? Bloodcloth? Ackee? Battyhole? R'asscloth? What do any of those words mean? I could only infer their meaning from context and mostly they seem to be swear words. That's just a small sampling of the patois words used on every page of this book. The judges for the Man Booker professed themselves very impressed with this language. I was somewhat less impressed.

I guess I can understand the writer's decision to use the unique patois of the region he was writing of in telling the story, but if one of the goals of a writer is to be understood by his/her readers, I'm afraid he failed miserably with me. I can appreciate the brilliance of his writing and what he has achieved here; I just wish it had been more accessible to me. 

One cannot deny that the book is very inventive and that the writer was incredibly ambitious in the way he constructed and presented the story. I can only think that the reader that he had in mind when he was writing is probably much more adventurous and much more masochistic than I.

At one point when I seriously despaired of ever being able to complete the book, I came across this quote:
The only way forward is through.
Yes, I thought, I can do this! And I did. And the last few chapters of the book, which covered events of the early '90s mostly in New York, actually began to make some sense for me. But it all seemed a very small return for such a tremendous effort. 

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

7 comments:

  1. This was also a challenging read for me though I liked it more than you did, both the book and the challenge. Husband read it too and we would go around the house saying those swear words to each other like little kids when they first learn to swear.

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    1. Perhaps you are the adventurous reader that James had in mind!

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  2. I'm sorry that you ended your reading year so poorly. Just think of the wonderful books you read as well. ;-)

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    1. Oh, I do! This was an anomaly, and even though I couldn't love it, I don't consider reading it time wasted. It was interesting in its own way.

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    2. And actually my reading year hasn't ended - I'm finishing up with a Harry Bosch mystery.

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  3. From your review, I know this book is DEFINITELY not for me. I admire you for finishing it. I tend to order a sample first on my Kindle, and don't buy the book unless it 'grabs' me in those first couple of chapters. In my 'senior' years, I have the same philosophy about books as I do about people: I don't want to spend time with those I don't like. Your reviews help me make good choices. Happy reading in 2017, Dorothy. P. x

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    1. I generally pick books to read based on the reviews by those that I've come to trust, including some of my fellow bloggers, or based on my previous experience with the author. I also depend on the magazine Bookmarks to bring books to my attention, both new ones and older ones that I might have missed. But occasionally all my selection criteria fail me. I think your method is probably a very good one. And a happy New Year of gardening and reading to you!

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