Mona's Reviews > A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
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Absorbing, Brutal, Brilliant Novel about Jamaican Drug Gangs and Bob Marley

Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica, is a very gifted writer. And obviously, he can write about Jamaica with authority, as well as about Jamaicans in New York City.

So this is a pretty amazing book. It's really well written and packed with action and surprises.

But be forewarned. It's not for the faint of heart.

There's a lot of violence, which escalates in brutality towards the end. (I was able to deal with it, because it was contextual. I mean, the book is about Jamaican drug gangs and the title is A Brief History of Seven Killings, so of course there is a lot of violence. It didn't feel like it was violence for it's own sake, or that it was being savored, as in I Am Pilgrim, which I couldn't even bring myself to finish).

There's also lots of obscene language, much of it in Jamaican patois. I was delighted to learn how to curse in Jamaican! Bombocloth! Bloodclaat!

There are also a few sex scenes, most of them depicting gay male sex.

So if any of this type of thing bothers you, you'll want to skip this book.

But then you'd be missing a very absorbing novel.

In spite of the title, it's not "brief". It's quite long, more than six hundred pages, but given its scope the length feels organic.

Although a Jamaican character makes fun of a white character who says something similar, I've got to say that the language the Jamaicans use--even when they "chat bad" or speak crudely, is pure poetry. It's not just the lilting Jamaican accent, but also their distinctive use of words that makes it so.

The sprawling story has several timelines and locations, and a large and varying cast of characters. There's even a ghost, Sir Arthur George Jennings, a fictitious murdered white Jamaican politician, who reappears at various points in the story.

There are lots of point of view narrators, too many to list. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. However, some of the main point-of-view characters include the young Jamaican woman mentioned earlier, Nina Burgess; an American journalist, Alex Pierce; gang dons Papa-Lo and Josey Wales (named after a character in an American Western movie) ; Barry DiFlorio, the CIA station chief in Jamaica; Weeper, a gang enforcer who works for Josey Wales; Doctor Love, a Latino explosives expert trained at the infamous School of the Americas; Bam-Bam, an adolescent gang member; Tristan Phillips, a Jamaican inmate at Rikers Island in New York; and John-John K, a young American hit man.

(view spoiler)

Marley is depicted as a man of great vision, but also a human with his faults and failings. I thought James' view of Bob Marley was pretty balanced. He didn't deify the man, while at the same time treating him with great respect. He also sprinkles excerpts from Marley's songs throughout the text, so it helps if you are familiar with Bob Marley's lyrics. Marley is not one of the novel's narrators, and thus, his actions and speech are always related third hand by others. So at the same time, he is the central character and a very peripheral one.

I loved the varying points of view and the distinctive voices of the different characters.

The first two sections of the novel, "Original Rockers", December 2, 1976, and "Ambush in the Night", December 3, 1976, take place largely in Kingston, Jamaica.

A lot (although not all) of these sections centers around the escalating gang violence in Kingston (much of it because of alliances with conflicting political parties, the conservative JLP or Jamaican Labor Party and the Socialist PNP or People's National Party) and a failed assasination attempt on Marley's life (he is referred to only as "The Singer", but it's pretty clear it's Bob Marley, the international Jamaican reggae star). The assasination attempt really happened, and it's very possible the CIA was involved. A group of gunmen attacked the Marley compound on Hope road, but no one was killed, although several in Marley's party, including his manager, were injured.

However, Bob Marley and the Wailers played the big peace concert, Smile Jamaica, which was planned for December 5, anyway, even though Marley and his wife Rita had been wounded in the attack.

(view spoiler)

The third section of the book, "Shadow Dancin' " takes place on February 15, 1979, in Kingston and in Montego Bay (or as the Jamaicans call it, "Mobay"). The title of this section comes from the hit song by English songwriter Andy Gibb of the band the Bee Gees. In general, the references to the pop music and films of each period of the book are quite authentic. This song was a huge hit in the fall of 1978.

The fourth section, "White Lines/Kids in America", follows the migration of the Jamaican drug trade to the U.S., and takes place mostly in New York, but also in Miami and Chicago. It's dated August 14, 1985.

The final section, "Sound Boy Killing", occurs on March 22, 1991, and takes place largely in New York City, with a few scenes in Kingston.

I listened to the audio and read along in the 3M Cloud app on my phone and computer.

This was a book for which the full cast audio definitely leant color to the experience and brought it to life. The cast was, for the most part, terrific, except for Chapter Ten in the last section, "Sound Boy Killing", in which Josey Wales' Jamaican accent didn't sound right.

I was able to follow the Jamaican patois from years of listening to reggae musicians like Bob Marley and the Wailers and Jimmy Cliff and from having a few Jamaican acquaintances in New York City. I certainly learned a whole lot of Jamaican patois from the audio, including how to curse in Jamaican.

The cast of the audio included Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis, Thom Rivera.
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Reading Progress

October 3, 2014 – Shelved
October 3, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
May 5, 2015 – Started Reading
May 5, 2015 –
0.0% "Listening to the audio. I will follow along with the ebook on 3M Cloud when it's available (later tonight?), although I really don't like the 3M Cloud Android app."
May 5, 2015 –
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May 6, 2015 –
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May 6, 2015 –
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"The full cast audio really brings this alive. Love the Jamaican patois."
May 6, 2015 –
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May 6, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
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"Awesome book. Marlon James is a poet."
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May 9, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 26, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Dang, lost my comment. Stupid.

Well, sounds like a great read, Mona. Have you ever seen or heard The Harder They Come? It isn't Marley, but I think it paved the way for reggae into the American music scene back in '72.

Great music. And I love Marley.

message 2: by Mona (last edited May 09, 2015 04:58PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona Ted wrote: "Dang, lost my comment. Stupid.

Well, sounds like a great read, Mona. Have you ever seen or heard The Harder They Come? It isn't Marley, but I think it paved the way for reggae into the American mu..."

Of course I saw that movie when it came out. It was Jimmy Cliff. And I owned the album too. I loved Jimmy Cliff, but loved Marley even more.

And yes, this novel is a great read. I recommend it.

Elyse  Walters Great review Mona.. Long involved novel! It does seem that maybe audio might br an added benefit.

Mona Elyse wrote: "Great review Mona.. Long involved novel! It does seem that maybe audio might br an added benefit."
Yes, and if you are already a Bob Marley fan it helps too.

message 5: by Margitte (new)

Margitte The cast of the audiobook sounds pretty interesting. Pity it is expensive to buy audiobooks. Great review, Mona. Bob Marley is currently a hot topic to write about, it seems.

message 6: by Mona (last edited May 10, 2015 06:48AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona Margitte wrote: "The cast of the audiobook sounds pretty interesting. Pity it is expensive to buy audiobooks. Great review, Mona. Bob Marley is currently a hot topic to write about, it seems."

Hi, Margitte. You should check to see if your library has audiobooks. Mine does. Also if you have a monthly membership at Audible, the audios are cheaper.

BTW, there are also some free audios available online, although they are mostly for books in the public domain and may not be of the highest quality.

I wonder why Bob Marley is currently a hot topic. Many people have loved his music for years.

message 7: by Chris (new) - added it

Chris great review, now i want to read this!

Mona Thanks, Chris. Yes, do read it! I think you will enjoy it! I recommend the audio.

message 9: by Cheryl (new) - added it

Cheryl Mona, I had to drop back by, 're-like' and leave a comment. Interesting how you note the Jamaican language's poetic vibe and I was fascinated that you've learned Jamaican curse words :) I spent some high school years in NYC- near Jamaica, Queens, and I heard those curse words allllll the time, especially from dollar-cab drivers on Jamaica Avenue. Speaking of the poetic slant, I've had my college composition students analyze a Marley song before because of the poetry and persuasion in it. He was a great songwriter and lover of language, but also one who was very interested in human rights. So glad to see that Marlon James has incorporated much of his culture in this read and that it is a winner. I'm hoping to read it soon. Thanks for this review.

Elyse  Walters Happy New Year Mona!

I finally got this one - just a few minutes ago - off the wait list -

On audio...( overdrive from my library)

Busy today with Paul..but will start this week.

I re- read your review - excellent.. Thank you!

message 11: by Sharyl (new)

Sharyl Good review, sounds fascinating!

message 12: by Christi (new) - added it

Christi Great review! I got this one for Christmas.

message 13: by Steve (new)

Steve It was a while ago that you wrote this, Mona, but I just now got around to reading it. It's so good!

message 14: by Mona (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona Hi Steve..guess you mean the review, read the book if you haven’t already, it rocks.

message 15: by Steve (new)

Steve Yes, the review. Sorry that wasn't clear, Mona. I'm looking forward to this book and his new one as well.

Aloke Great review Mona. I've just finished it and am now going through the GR reviews. I'm enjoying finding all these easter eggs of connections to real life characters, so thanks for the section about Mark Lansing's character. Listening to an interview with James right now he also mentions that Sir Arthur Jennings was based on a real-life politician named Kenneth Jones who did sleepwalk off a balcony (or did he???).

message 17: by Mona (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona Aloke wrote: "Great review Mona. I've just finished it and am now going through the GR reviews. I'm enjoying finding all these easter eggs of connections to real life characters, so thanks for the section about ..."Hi Aloke..Glad you enjoyed my review. I vaguely remember reading something about the Jennings-Jones connection, but it’s awhile since I read the book, so I’m not sure my memory is accurate here. The book really rocks, doesn’t it? Marlon James is a blisteringly good writer.

Aloke It does rock! Like original rockers. What’s your opinion on the meaning of the title?

message 19: by Mona (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona It’s been awhile since I read the book..But “brief” must be ironic, as it’s quite a long book. I think the book does recount seven murders (several of them gang related, if I remember correctly)..I don’t remember each one..but Marley’s death must be considered one of them. Doesn’t Doctor Love kill at least one person during the course of the book?

message 20: by Mona (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona So does John-John K. I’m forgetting the whole sequence of murders (in some cases the killers also becoming the victims). Wouldn’t want to post it anyway...spoilers.

Aloke Thanks Mona. It actually has a lot more than seven killings! I took it to mean the killings of the assasins. Yes Dr Love is involved in one of them.

message 22: by Mona (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mona Aloke, I believe you..I read it too long ago to remember the details. I think you’re probably right. There was a lot of violence in the book. I vaguely remember 7 assasins who died.

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