Review: “A brief history of seven killings” by Marlon James.

James has written an exhilarating, transnational, cross generational vice city ride through the garbage town wastelands of the Jamaican ghettos and the slum tenements of New York City. Written with the distinct cadence of Jamaican patois, A Brief History is the voice of the gang ridden, vicious underbelly of the Jamaican slums. The attempted execution of “the singer” Bob Marley is, incredibly, almost a sub plot! A Brief History is more concerned with the violent impact that living in poverty had on the local population, the rampant drug use in poor areas, giving a voice to the disenfrashised, observing the various layers in the Jamaican social strata, the plight of homosexual men, politics, police brutality and the awful way women were treated. Yeah, you could say it is wide ranging and ambitious. It’s a must-read masterpiece.

 

Drugs:

 

Life in the Jamaican ghetto is riddled with violence and drug taking. It becomes a crutch for the gangsters in the ghetto to bolster their confidence when murdering innocent people. Sex and violence and hardship and drugs go together. Bam Bam wants to “Fuck fuck fuck” after freebasing coke. “This is what it must feel like when woman get her titties sucked” he thinks, articulating his rush. His base desires to fuck and kill come to the surface, his thoughts turn dark and he wants to ring a boy’s neck and “rub his face” in the blood.

People use narcotics to numb themselves to the harsh conditions they live in. When gang members get high, their morals are loosened up sufficiently to justify the killing in their minds. It is a deliberate strategy on the part of the gang leaders too – they strategically ply them full of drugs before venturing out on their hits. Papa Lo loads his crew up on the white stuff before rampaging through West Trenchtown on a murderous rampage. “I hate trying to think in a straight line, but in Jamaica a straight line is white” expresses the desire to abstain in a neighbourhood awash with dope.

 

Class:

 

“It’s nothing to kill a boy” in the ghetto says Bam Bam. It’s understood that the value on life is worth less in the ghetto. His character is instructive as to the issues with generational poverty; his father having beaten his mother for being a prostitute and them both being callously murdered. How could he escape the life pre ordained for him?

Kim Clarke offers a solution – to leave. She understands that “Jamaica never changes. Only finds new ways to stay the same” and takes appropriate action to get out.

Josey Wales feels he must act unintelligent when conversing with the CIA so as not to arouse suspicion. They are so supercilious they view him as barely being able to talk and certainly not capable of insightful thought. “Remember to throw in a thank you man” and act dumb, he keeps reminding himself, so they can keep pigeonholing him as a mindless hired goon.

The CIA are frequently found espousing democracy and completely missing the point that class is a bigger issue. They ignore the poverty and focus on preventing communism. “Who cares about peace” pleads Josey, highlighting the real issue holding Jamaica back.

Alex Pierce, the Rolling Stone journalist and writer, is seen by Tristan Philips as the only person who can “write the whole 400 year reason why my country is going to fail”. It is telling that Philips sees a white man as the only one capable of this.   The uneducated people living in poverty have not had access to sufficient education to be able to tell their story.

Not that the characters fare that much better in the US. Dorcas Palmer is still cleaning up the shit and piss of people in her job. The gangbangers still gangbang.

Josey Wales muses on the difference between the Jamaican ghetto and the tenements in New York “nobody knows the difference between a good thing and a bigger bad thing”.

 

Homosexuality in “A Brief History of seven killings”:

 

Weeper does take advantage of the social freedoms in America. He lives openly as a gay man in New York having been unable to in Jamaica. The level of homophobia in the Jamaican ghettoes is staggering by any metric. The incessant use of the derogatory term “Batty boy” to describe homosexuals is frightening. It is intended and employed as a viscous slur. Weeper cannot escape this when dealing with his fellow Jamaican gangsters in New York. The country has changed but the taunting gang members remain the same.

This is not say that homosexual men had it easy in America. Consider John John K when his father finds his gay porn stash “Fucking dirty little faggot. There is a special place in hell for people like you”. Despite this, he is able to hold his ground with his father and have the confidence to make the decision. The two characters symbolise the struggle for acceptance that gay people underwent to push society forward.

 

Feminism:

 

Women have to fight hard to live independent lives in both countries. In Jamaica: they cannot. Nina Burgess gets violently beaten by her father Maurice. This theme of brutal domestic violence being meted out to women is frequent throughout.

It pushes Nina over the edge and she runs away from her family. When she shacks up with the American man Chuck, he begins to casually refer to her (now Kim Clarke) as his “sexy little slut”. Clarke is well used to this male behaviour and casually bats it off as “one of two hundred mistakes men make with women they live with every day”. It is systematic and institutionalised sexism.

Clarke is the real heroine of the story.  Setting her sights on escaping from Jamaica next, she has to clean, cook and fuck her American male partner to try to get him to get a green card and go to America with him. “You never become a difficult bitch. That’s the white woman’s territory” she thinks, afraid to jeopardize her future. Her devastation when he inevitably discards her is tough to read and emblematic of the American male attitude to Jamaican women. Clarke says they want to “educate” them, underscoring the racist misogyny at play.

 

Police Brutality:

 

The democratic institutions in Jamaica are not sufficiently setup to maintain a peaceful society in the 1970s. The police respond to the violence on the streets in kind. Citizens are found guilty without trial. Weeper has his penis electrocuted whilst being tortured in prison, traumatising him for the rest of his life.

The police strip suspects and get them to nakedly gyrate against the empty pavement; to fuck the ground. They are demeaned and persecuted without due process. Papa Lo and his gang are gunned down in broad daylight as the Jamaican police are judge, jury and executioner. They are endemically corrupt; taking bribes from the gangsters.

 

Jamaican Politics:

 

“It looks like we are planning for war while everyone else is planning for peace” Josey says to himself as he works out why the US is sending huge shipments of arms to help repel the communist PLP party and kill off Bob Marley. The attempted assassination of the reggae superstar is bizarre. There is an interesting story told where an unnamed CIA operative warns him not to get so political during a break in his rehearsals. He asks him why he doesn’t sing the “sweet love songs” anymore.

There is lots of humour in the story. My favourite is when the CIA give Josey Wales a picture book aimed at school children about the benefits of democracy. “Look here’s someone eating a twinkie” in a utopian democratic society! During the planning of Marley’s assassination, Josey is frequently referred to as “my boy” in a demeaning and sarcastic tone. Lewis Johnson refers to him as his “well trained” dog. The imperialism dressed up as democracy promotion is thinly veiled.

 

Conclusion:

 

The enormous scope of A Brief History can make it daunting at first. It is a long and sprawling novel which could just as easily been called “A long and detailed history of a thousand killings”! Yet it succeeds beautifully in every regard. It works as an adrenaline fuelled page turner and also as a forensic study of Jamaican society in the 70s, 80 and 90s. I’ll leave it to Tristan Philips to sum it up best: “Mind you now Alex Pierce. Jamaica can shoot through your veins and it became like every dark thing that not good for you”.

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About Mick Gilbride

@orbital80
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2 Responses to Review: “A brief history of seven killings” by Marlon James.

  1. Dan says:

    I liked this book, but the big disappointment for me was how small a role music played throughout it. I mean, late 70s Jamaica, early 80s New York? Would it have killed him to write a scene around a soundclash or a block party?

    • When I’m reading a book, I write notes the key themes I like; anything I think is important. I threatened to write about music a couple of times but it just felt like he never fully explored that avenue. So, I agree with your assessment.
      Thinking about it, the scope was so gigantic! Maybe James did not want another theme to add to it!
      Plus, I thought it was good that he didn’t go down the cliched reggae route. I thought it was crazy that the Marley story was not a bigger part of the plot. Loved it overall.

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