A Brief History of Seven Killing has a ferocious energy that carries you alongby Sameer Rahim / October 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
If the Man Booker Prize is, in the words of Julian Barnes, “posh bingo,” then the Prize dinner held at the Guildhall is where the literary world compare their cards before the result is revealed. The bookies favourite had been Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, her novel about a survivor of child abuse trying to remake his life in New York. But, so I heard from a reputable source, two judges didn’t care for it. One was even overheard saying they hated it. So Yanagihara was out. What about the second favourite, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, about three illegal immigrants living in Sheffield? A powerful work, one judge told me after the result was announced, but the vividness of one character’s story outbalanced the rest. The chat turned to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, the eventual winner of the £50,000 prize.
Before the dinner, I spoke briefly to James who told me he was hoping to keep “zen” but wasn’t quite managing to. He looked pretty cool to me. Later, in his acceptance speech, the 44-year-old Jamaican said that his first novel had been rejected so many times he had considered giving up writing. A Brief History, his blistering second novel based on a real attempt to kill Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, is certainly a challenging read. There are more than 70 characters, ranging from local gangsters to drug lords to CIA agents and journalists. We hear their version of events in their own distinctive voices—some in patois, some in standard English. Packed with murder, swearing and sexual violence, the novel has a ferocious, driving energy reminiscent of the crime novels of James Ellroy. As the chair of judges Michael Wood said, his mother would “not have got beyond the first few pages because of the swearing.” But although the first few pages can be tough going, it has an uncanny ability to draw you in. I was still reading it at 2am.