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Gangster’s paradise: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James’s novel about an assassination attempt on Bob Marley is more true for being fiction.

On 13 October 2015, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for this novel

A nine-word Jamaican proverb serves as the epigraph for Marlon James’s 700-page novel: “If it no go so, it go near so.” The pro­position – that this made-up story might as well be true to the life of the country, or certainly truer than any straight history would be – immediately recalls Salman Rushdie’s proviso, from his 1983 novel, Shame: “The country in this story is not Pakistan, or not quite. There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space, or almost the same space. My story, my fictional country exist, like myself, at a slight angle to reality. I have found this off-centering to be necessary; but its value is, of course, open to debate.” That debate is decided by the success of a writer’s melting down of history and politics to fuel the roaring engine-works of a novel about the life and times of a people. And James’s sprawling, daunting, messy effort is a great – if grim – success.

The grimness: the Jamaica that emerges from James’s impressive third novel is an often vile and perpetually violent place, populated by kill-or-be-killed shanty-town gangsters whose moneymaking ventures and vendettas are fully fused with prominent figures and important events in the country’s history. This is nowhere more evident than in the book’s departure point, the December 1976 shooting of Bob Marley, shortly before he was to headline a peace concert. Marley had proposed the concert because Jamaica was riven with conflicts – between the government and opposition parties, each of which was in cahoots with a rival street gang, and between rival geopolitical cold war opponents. By the mid-1970s, Prime Minister Michael Manley and his party were aligned with communist Cuba, while the opposition found its support from anti-communist American elements, including the CIA.

Rather than try to provide a clarified account of this convoluted situation, James gives it maximum voice and shape on the page. The book features a Russian-sized “Cast of Characters” that lists hundreds, many of whom, in a Jamaican riff on that other Russian tendency in books, go by multiple names, nicknames and aliases. These hundreds clash and orbit around the novel’s centre of gravity, the assassination attempt on Marley (called “the Singer”).

We meet them through the guttural, patois-filled monologues of dozens of characters who occupy an array of positions in its turbulent world. These include the swaggering and vicious “dons” in command of the warring gangs; ambitious, conniving and ever-striving gang members high and low; tough if fretful women who become involved with stupid and dangerous men; cynical CIA operatives; an American journalist recklessly obsessed with telling the story of who shot Marley; and also a dead founding-father-style politician who first introduces us to this “story of several killings, of boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning”.

James, who grew up in Jamaica, is a professor of English at an American university: he knows exactly how he could have made the novel easier for us. He could have privileged the Faulkner-inspired dead parent-figure narrator as a higher authority for discerning the meanings of events in the book, and he could have deployed the American journalist character as our reliable guide. Instead, attesting to his admirable commitment to a truer rendering of a “Jamaica Gone to Hataclaps” (apocalypse), these are just two voices among many, all of which struggle to understand, endure, prevail in and escape from a world where far too many young men find far too much reason and encouragement to “grab me gun and think how I want to kill kill kill this pussyhole and nobody going get to kill him but me and I want to kill kill kill and it just feel so good, so raasclaat sweet every time I say Kill kill kill that the echo in the room sweet too”.

This typically graphic and cadenced voice emerges from the taut lead-up to the all-guns-blazing assault on Marley’s compound, the first of two especially violent sequences. The 20-year fallout of the failed assassination – which leaves the Singer with a bullet lodged in his arm, as the doctor tells him that an operation would interfere with his guitar-playing – includes revenge killings, intra-gang power struggles, switches in political and geopolitical allegiance, and clouds of suspicion. It also involves a flow of people from Jamaica to New York, which becomes a hub-cum-charnel house for competing Jamaican gangs trafficking in Colombian cocaine by the 1980s. The novel’s second significant sequence of violence is a terrifying shoot-out at an infernal New York crack house filled with dealers and thugs, addicts and their children.

Though brilliant as a literary accomplishment, James’s work is frequently hard going in reading terms, given the outsized stew of players and motives and the hyped-up prose that conveys it all. At times he risks coming across as overly indulgent of his penchant for maximalist effects. But, in giving us the fullest sense of this world, it proves to be a risk worth running. There are a few bright narrative threads to pull you through the chaos, one featuring the novel’s alpha-don, the self-styled Josey Wales. From beginning to end, he is responsible for more madness and mayhem than anyone else. He is also, ironically, the character who best captures the only plausible peace to be had in Marlon James’s Jamaica: “Peace is blowing a little breeze on my daughter forehead when she sweat in her sleep.” She, too, is eventually gunned down. 

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is published by Oneworld (688pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism