The Man Booker fiction prize has always been open to English writing from Commonwealth nations, but until Marlon James’s nomination this year, no Jamaican writer had ever received the honor—welcome evidence that a newly eligible American market doesn’t seem to be crowding out contenders from the original pool. Tumultuous and overwhelming, A Brief History of Seven Killings would have been hard to overlook in any case. James’s novel has been compared to the imaginings of Quentin Tarantino, David Foster Wallace, and William Faulkner. And no wonder, given the violence, kaleidoscopic vitality, and stream-of-consciousness patois that fill its nearly 700 pages.
The 1976 attempt to assassinate Bob Marley serves as the book’s anchor, but to label A Brief History of Seven Killings a historical novel would be to miss its genre-blurring essence. In real life, Marley survived and the almost-killers’ motivations and identities sparked conspiracy theories. In the novel, the assassination inspires a dizzying epic, which encompasses Jamaican politics and American Cold-War policy, not to mention poverty, gang warfare, race, class, and international trade in crack cocaine. Marley, who is referred to only as the Singer throughout the book, serves as a somewhat paradoxical mythic force: He is the peace-preaching voice of the disenfranchised and at the same time the symbol of complicity with what the Rastafarians call “Babylon,” the corrupt system of power that includes politically motivated violence, American influence, and police brutality. In the chaotic sprawl of a story that the critics agree is—as Michiko Kakutani put it in The New York Times—both “exhilarating and exhausting,” James is interested above all in giving imaginative life to invented figures surrounding Marley.
“In creative writing, I teach that characters arise out of our need for them,” James wrote in a personal essay last March in The New York Times Magazine about leaving home to live an openly gay life in the U.S. (where he now teaches at Macalester College). By that, he evidently means to convey a sense of creative compulsion, as if characters should be conjured forth to satisfy some existential urge. That gut impulse certainly seems to have been the case in James’s own novel, his third. In an interview posted on the Man Booker website, he’s asked about his cast of some 75 characters: “What was your reasoning behind using such a crowd?” His answer: “That’s just it, reason had to go out the window! I had to get to the point where my inner critic stopped questioning my moves, because often I was moving without a second thought or even a first one. It was the riskiest thing I had ever done and reasoning had nothing to do with it.”
James sweeps his readers up in a flow that can sometimes feel overwhelming as the characters take turns commandeering short chapters. But James’s need for each is palpably urgent. All of his characters—gang members, CIA operatives, journalists, even the ghost of an assassinated politician who likes to compare his head to a smashed pumpkin and remind the reader that “dead people never stop talking”—have distinct perspectives. They have their own languages, too. Some speak in heavy patois, others in macho-infused American English, others in dialects that mix the two. The web of connections among his multitudinous cast, and their various relationships to Marley, emerges as James spins a saga that explores how individuals, propelled by intense desires and delusions, help to shape vast historical and social forces—even as they are unable to escape their own circumstances.
“She was … hell-bent on escaping the life that fate had all but drawn up in lines with just numbers left to color,” writes the novel’s journalist character in his New Yorker treatise on Jamaica near the end of the novel. He’s describing a pregnant woman recently shot and killed by a Jamaican drug lord, but he’s also alluding to one of the novel’s central tensions: the individual can be caught up in larger historical currents while never losing the desire to fight against them. It’s this dilemma that intrigues James and that’s embodied in a character who might at first be mistaken for one of the most marginal figures in A Brief History of Seven Killings. Meet Nina Burgess, whose only association with Marley is a one-night stand that she believes will convince the reggae star to help her get a visa to the U.S.
“Nina Burgess just sort of came in and took over the book,” James said in another interview. She is a fascinating combination of chameleon and nihilist. Nina believes that “no matter how far a Jamaican can run, it’s always inching up behind you”—the vague “it” implying a terror that fuses both the immediate threat of violence and the memory of past brutality.
And yet, while many of the novel’s other characters share her sense of impending doom, Nina manages to chart a path by attaching herself to different men. Under various pseudonyms, she proceeds from Marley to an American who actually does help her get to the U.S., then to a mentally ill patient whom she cares for as a nurse, and finally to a comatose gangster in the hospital in New York City where she works. In morphing from Nina Burgess to Kim Clarke to Dorcas Palmer to Millicent Segree, changing not only her name but her backstory and the rhythm and tone in which she speaks, she manages to evade the fates James visits on the other Jamaican characters: rape, drug abuse, prison, and death. (If you were wondering, there are many more than seven killings in this book.)
More than that, her resilience offers a life raft for the reader through a tale that can seem harrowingly violent and hopeless, peopled by so many victims who are doomed from the moment they are born. She is a testament not only to James’s prodigiously versatile writing but also to his awareness that an undaunted, self-made character is crucial to helping his reader navigate A Brief History of Seven Killings’s dark heart. “The only way forward is through,” Nina repeats to herself during her Kim Clarke chapter. Her words speak to the experience of reading James’s novel. The journey is certainly worth it.