Fiction – audiobook. Read by Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis, and Thom Rivera. Highbridge, 2014. 26 hours. Purchased.
On December 3, 1976, gunmen opened fire inside the Jamaican home of Reggae superstar, Bob Marley. The attack occurred against the backdrop of the looming general elections – a event the American government was afraid would sweep a pro-Communist government into power — and only two days before Marley was set to perform at a charity concert.
Marley is never referred to by name in James’ novel; he is known only as “the Singer” to the cast of characters from whose eyes James examines this event and its lasting impacts on Jamaican politics and the diaspora in New York City. I say cast because the list of characters included at the start of James’ novel stretches over four pages.
However, as the story progresses, it is clear the story alternates between three main characters: a woman who once had sex with the Singer, the CIA field operative stationed in Jamaica, and a journalist sent by Rolling Stones to cover the big name (read: white) singers hoping to capitalize on the Singer’s unique style. Additional viewpoints are provided by the Singer’s would-be killers, but their viewpoints are narrowed down to one voice as the ruthlessness of rival gangs or life in poverty catches up with them.
I purchased a printed James’ novel soon after it won the Man Booker Prize, and I’ve tried picking it up more than once over the years. I always gave up after a hundred or so pages; the story having failed to capture my interest, which made deciphering Jamaican patois feel particularly like a slog.
But I’ve read so few books set in the Caribbean that I wasn’t quite willing to give up on this award-winning. I purchased the audiobook and promised myself that if that didn’t work, then I’d pass on this book without a second glance. As I suspected, the audiobook brought the characters’ voices to life, removing all my confusion around the slang terminologies and helping me to feel invested in the characters’ lives.
Still, this is a very long book – nearly 700 pages in my printed copy – and the story’s ambition in the amount of time it covers is to its own detriment. By the time the story reached New York City in the 1990s, the only character whose story I still felt invested in was that of the Singer’s one-night stand, Nina Burgess.
(For her alone, I’m glad I switched to the audiobook. She changes her name several times over the course of the novel; a fact I might not have realized if I hadn’t heard the name narrator’s voice.)
I can see why the book won the Man Booker Prize; the characters are well-constructed, and the varying viewpoints paints a complex portrait of Jamaica as a country. I enjoyed it enough that I wouldn’t be disinclined to pick up another (shorter) book by James. Mostly, though, I was glad to finally have it off my to-read pile, and it’s hard to lavish praise on book where the final feeling is one of relief.
‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ won the Man Booker Prize, the American Book Award, and the Green Carnation Prize in 2015. It was shortlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award in 2016.