Wednesday 25 April 2018

A glorious novel zooming through sentences like a man on a motorbike

Fiction: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James, Oneworld, pbk, 700 pages, €13.50

Surprise: Marlon James won last year's Man Booker Prize
Surprise: Marlon James won last year's Man Booker Prize
A Brief History of Seven Killings

Tim Martin

It's fair to say that Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings wasn't the book that everyone expected to win last year's Man Booker Prize. Beginning in 1976, amid a maelstrom of gang warfare in Kingston, Jamaica, sweeping on to 1990s New York and spinning long threads of violence and retribution from a real-life conspiracy to the murder of Bob Marley, it's a long, complicated, intensely violent novel so bursting with life and dialogue that reading it can be utterly and gloriously overwhelming.

Its 45-year-old author, who teaches creative writing at Macalester College in Minnesota and is now the first Jamaican to win the prize, cites influences as diverse as Greek tragedy, William Faulkner, the LA crime novelist James Ellroy, Shakespeare, Batman and the X-Men.

He is also in the process of adapting his Booker-winning novel into an HBO television series. Put simply, although A Brief History of Seven Killings is certainly a historical novel (and, ­incidentally, the fourth historical novel to win the Booker in a row), it's a long way from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, though, was in every way the obvious victory for people who like novels. It's a vast, ambitious, burning mansion of a book, designed to reflect all the languages of its teeming island and the chambers of the human heart. It's irreverent, difficult, funny, argumentative, sometimes horribly violent and very often pleased with itself. Following Ellroy, it involves itself deeply in the intricate plotlines of the crime genre. Following Faulkner, it beguiles the reader with a variety of narrative set-ups and registers. Some of it is in verse. Some of it is in dialogue, without stage directions. Much of it takes the form of stream-of-consciousness recollection, often in various forms of Jamaican patois and dialect.

There is a bit narrated in prim and proper Queen's English, but it turns out to have been narrated by a ghost. More often, James zooms through the English sentence like a man on a motorbike dodging heavy traffic: "And I hear the bullet and the pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap and the whoooshboom and feel the floor shake. And woman scream and man scream and boy scream in that way where life cut short and you can hear the scream get lost in blood rushing from the throat up to the mouth, a gargle, a choke."

Reading this prose is a sweaty-palmed, physical experience. Of course it's worth remembering that the author is now the first of his countrymen to have won the Booker; also, perhaps, to read his book, which is set in a country that continues to ban male homosexuality, in the knowledge that he happens to be gay.

But although this is in many aspects a political book, it's also a giant echo-chamber of criminals, politicos, hacks, spies, gangsters, gossips and groupies that is far too clamorous and demanding - which is to say, perhaps, too human - to reduce to a single politics. It's a tough read, but eminently worthwhile.

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