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A Brief History of Seven Killings
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2015 Book Discussions > A Brief History of Seven Killings - Part 5 and Whole Book, Spoilers Allowed (December 2015)

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Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Did you feel there was any overall message to the book? What did it add to your understanding of Jamaica? Did you have any favourite narrative voices? What about Sir Arthur Jennings - did you see him as a narrative summariser or a player in his own right?


Portia We binged "Narcos" on Netflix about Pablo Escobar, the Medellin drug cartel and the, wait for it, Narcos who chased him. I thought of the show often when I was reading this book. It seems the entire Caribbean was one big drug ring. Sex, too, but no rock and roll. Just disco


message 3: by Sandra (last edited Dec 02, 2015 07:20AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sandra | 114 comments I'm not sure about the overall message of the book... I imagine it's along the lines of people (mostly Americans but I imagine other vacationers who just see one small part of Jamaica) being totally ignorant of the realities of every day Jamaican life. I tended to regard Jamaica as a laid back, peaceful ganja smoking country where everyone worked in the service industry etc... silly really, never gave it much thought besides hearing about other people's Jamaica beach vacations. The reality is of a 3rd world, struggling, corrupt country where different gangs vie for dominance and are even encouraged by the government.

My favorite character was Papa Lo. He seemed like he had a real sensitive heart beating inside a ruthless killer. LOL

adding a spoiler just in case (view spoiler)


message 4: by Hugh (last edited Dec 08, 2015 12:29AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
I thought the way Papa Lo and Josey Wales were compared was interesting, and surprisingly nuanced. Papa Lo only became a peacemaker after a long and brutal spell in charge of the gang, and I think James hints that he and Josey Wales were at different stages of the same career path. Just my opinion - would be interesting to see what others think.

As for the overall message, I asked the question because I wasn't clear what I felt about it.


Portia Does there need to to a message? If the book is "just" as narrative, that's ok too, IMHO. It's quite a story.


Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
One other open question specifically about book 5 - why do you think James stopped using the named narrators in this section?


Portia I wish someone would answer that. The change threw me.


message 8: by Whitney (last edited Dec 12, 2015 03:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
I don't think there was an overreaching grand theme to this book, but I don't think it's "just" narrative either, although there is some fantastic writing.

James had a lot to say and reveal about recent Jamaican history and the forces that shape individuals and communities. From the 'low': kids like Bam Bam or Weeper who had little choice but to join the violent gangster culture around them given their circumstances, experiences, and opportunities. In Weeper's case especially it's clear how the authorities, in the shape of the police, serve to perpetuate the violent gang culture rather than helping to end it. To the 'high': the prime ministers and would be prime ministers who play the gangs against each other for the sake of power, and the CIA who see the appeal of Bob Marley as more of a threat than the actions of men like Doctor Love and Jose Wales.

I think that Arthur Jennings as narrator serves to underscore that the violence in the slums is perpetuated from above. Jennings is politician murdered by another politician, and in the opening chapter he says This is a story of several killings, of boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning, but each of them as they pass me carry the sweet-stink scent of the man that killed me." As a ghost,he also has the advantage of a certain omniscience, as well as commenting on how the past informs (or tries to inform) the present; "the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear."


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
In interviews, James has talked about the many different voices in his book and his awareness of the dangers of falling into a reverse stereotypes with characters such as DiFlorio and Alex Pierce, such as the stereotype of the cultural tourist. What did people think about Alex? I think it would be almost impossible not to see him as a cultural tourist on some level. Tristan says to him at one point "What kind of man pick Trench Town as him favourite spot? You lucky you white, eh? Make me ask you something, you think Trench Town is a favourite spot for anybody living in Trench Town? You think any of them sitting on a stoop saying, Now this is the life? Tourist funny, boy." But was there more to him than that? What do you think his role was in the story? Why does James make Alex the one who knows the most truth (outside of the players) of what went on at the singer's house?


Sandra | 114 comments Sometimes it takes an outsider to see through to the heart of the matter. Jamaican natives, for the most part, didn't care all that much about reggae music, didn't care for the rasta lifestyle. Didn't have the luxury to contemplate Bob Marley and the failed assassination attempt, too busy trying to find work and feed the family. Didn't want to get caught up in all that political mess. Alex kept his ears and eyes open long after the assignation attempt. He cared about what happened. He probably figured he could fly below the radar. And he did... For a while.

He probably said he liked Trench Town because there he found the real Jamaica, not the tourist Jamaica. If that makes him a cultural tourist, so what? Some people are.


Portia I see Alex as The Journalist. He's The War Correspondent, The Photojournalist, the reporter who is only happy risking his/her life and "going native."


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
Sandra wrote: "Sometimes it takes an outsider to see through to the heart of the matter. Jamaican natives, for the most part, didn't care all that much about reggae music, didn't care for the rasta lifestyle. Did..."

I guess I need some clarification as to what you mean. Jamaicans started the Rastafarian religion, and reggae is Jamaican. Why would Jamaicans not be the ones who care about it - it is them. It's like saying non-Americans are better able to understand the blues, or that people from outside Britain have a better handle on figgy pudding.

He probably said he liked Trench Town because there he found the real Jamaica, not the tourist Jamaica. If that makes him a cultural tourist, so what? Some people are.

I think you're interpreting cultural tourism as a different thing from what James is referring to. The "cultural tourist" is something that people and especially writers of color have long railed against. The (usually) European or American who treats another culture the way people treat a zoo. Spending an hour in the slums of Calcutta and declaring they have experienced "the real India", and making inane proclamations such as "they're poor but happy". By calling Alex out on Trenchtown, Tristan is implying that Alex is of their ilk.


Portia How like is Alex to what we currently call "embedded journalists"?

I've also been thinking, based on others' comments, on all of the fictional characters. Especially with Dorcas, it seems to me that James has nearly stereotyped these characters. That takes nothing away from how deeply I felt her pain when she realized that she was being left behind by the male employee of a large American corporation who picks up a local woman for the duration, also a typical occurrence.

I understand why James packed so much into each fictional character. I'm wondering what others think of the device.


Sandra | 114 comments @Whitney: Reading this book, many times I read of everyday ordinary Jamaicans (Dorcas's mom and dad for example) speak in disparaging terms about Rastafarians and their dirty nappy hair and their worship of an African man etc... I did not get the impression that many ordinary Jamaicans were Rasta. Shadow Dancing refers to that shitty disco song which all of Jamaica seemed to embrace, I didn't get the idea that Jamaicans were all that interested in reggae music, that it was more of a Brit and American thing, that it was disco music blaring in all the Jamaican clubs. That's what I'm referring to when I say Jamaicans didn't care about reggae etc. Yes it started in Jamaica but that doesn't mean everyone took part. I don't have the book (brought it back to the library) so I can't find direct references to this, though. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting.

Do many Brits eat figgy pudding? IDK Maybe Martha Stewart makes the best figgy pudding on the planet ;)


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
Sandra wrote: "@Whitney: Reading this book, many times I read of everyday ordinary Jamaicans (Dorcas's mom and dad for example) speak in disparaging terms about Rastafarians and their dirty nappy hair and their w..."

Many ordinary Americans, especially the well-heeled equivalents of Nina's family, looked down on jazz, rock and roll, and rap, and the majority of Americans don't listen to rap or jazz, which doesn't make them any less American. Also being popular in other countries and having other nationalities pick it up doesn't change the fact that reggae is a Jamaican art form, anymore than having belly dancing troupes in Long Island doesn't change the fact that belly dancing is a Middle Eastern art form. On a somewhat related note, Kim's boyfriend Ras Trent shows the way Rasta as a trend penetrated into the richer classes, similar to the way rap did in the US.

The idea that an 'outsider' is better able to explain a different culture is one that has historically been applied to white people explaining brown or yellow cultures, this would be part of what James was referring to as 'cultural tourism'. I would say the odds of him setting up a semi-clueless midwestern music journalist as the interpreter of Jamaican culture is pretty near zero.

And Martha Stewart may very well make the best figgy pudding. But that doesn't mean we then proclaim foggy pudding isn't British anymore because an American does it better :-)


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
Sandra wrote: "Shadow Dancing refers to that shitty disco song which all of Jamaica seemed to embrace..."

I think you're right that this did serve to show that all of Jamaica was by no means nodding to the reggae beat. Man, I forgot how crazy popular that song was, apparently everywhere! I think James' use of this song and others as background and metaphor is probably worthy of its own dissertation.


Portia Am I correct that Nina Burgess, Kim Clarke, and Dorcas Palmer are all the same woman? I got the idea that each time this character finds herself in a bad position she "makes lemondade" by changing her identity and moving. Dorcas makes reference to Arkansas, where Nina's Alcorp lover was from.


message 18: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Portia - I felt that was hinted at too, and I think we were supposed to make that connection.

As for Alex's role, I felt it was almost picaresque, and had an element of light relief.


Portia She's what I'd call "a tough cookie." I really like and admire her and I think James intended that.


message 20: by Sandra (last edited Dec 13, 2015 04:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sandra | 114 comments Yeah, I never meant that reggae wasn't a uniquely Jamaican form of music, only that many Jamaicans weren't really into it nor the Rastas life and religion. What I meant about Alex was along the lines of sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.Jamaicans were caught up in the details of daily life, too close to the political wrangling going on on a daily basis to have the luxury to step back and focus in on what happened that December evening before the freedom concert. I did not view Alex as explaining the Jamaican culture as such (though I'm sure he thought he got it) as being able to see what really happened to Bob Marley and by whom because he was removed from the situation (and thus almost invisible) and cared enough to delve into the particulars.


I wonder how much reggae was played on the radio stations in Jamaica at the time (early, mid 70s)?


I thought that Nina was Kim, was Dorcas. I never questioned it.

And though I'm American I don't know much about the blues. Eric Clapton and Keith Richards can definitely school me.


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
There were concrete statements in all of her chapters confirming that Nina was all three. I loved her character as well. Why do you think she picked her sister's name for her first alias?


message 22: by Sandra (last edited Dec 13, 2015 04:19PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sandra | 114 comments And ps when I said reggae music was a Brit and American thing, I didn't mean they invented it or even could play it, I meant they LIKED the music (more than perhaps Most Jamaicans) and almost became kind of worshipful toward All things Jamaica, such as Mick Jagger be-bopping around during the concert.

Okay, now I'm done, LOL


Sandra | 114 comments Okay, not done! I lied.

@whitney, I see what you are saying about cultural tourist as a derogatory thing. I was thinking of it as someone who goes to a country and doesn't just go for a short vacation of some weeks, but rather as someone who immerses oneself in the culture and lives abroad as expats or whatever...

But here is what I want to say. I found the characters of Nina/Kimberly/Dorcas and Alex Pierce a weird dichotomy. Or two sides of the same coin, maybe. You have two people who originally wanted something from the singer and were waiting around for his attention. Then both being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then Nina's desperate attempt to get out of the country at all costs, to forget the face of the killer, that try as she might, was tattooed on her brain. So desperate to forget she became someone else, lived alone, did not befriend other Jamaicans living in the US so intent on forgetting what she saw in Jamaica, not even eating Jamaican food.

And Alex, though also frightened of what he knew about that December night, picking and digging at clues relentlessly, for years, then writing a multi-part expose' in a national magazine that pointed the spotlight right on himself (and what he probably knew about other situations).

His narcissistic need for attention and her desperate attempt for none.


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
Yes, great observation - they are dichotomies of each other, aren't they?


Sandra | 114 comments Also, why did Alex title his article "A Brief History of Seven Killings"? and what were those killings?


message 26: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Sandra wrote: "Also, why did Alex title his article "A Brief History of Seven Killings"? and what were those killings?"
I wish I could remember what I heard James say about this - something along the lines of "it's not brief and there are a lot more than seven killings"


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Finished the book about a week ago and I'm liking it more as I reflect on it. I think the first and last sections were my favorite. I'm not sure if there was any overall message to the book but I did appreciate how everything felt connected. It seemed as though all actions had consequences, which was made especially clear in the end of the book. For example, Tristan tells Alex not to write anything until everyone is dead, Alex ignores this advice (thinking he's safe since Josey is in jail), and gets in a heap of trouble.

It was a bit strange that the last section switched from character names to numbers but it worked for me. I liked having to figure out who each character was.

I loved Nina's character. She was the one character I continuously rooted for. Although it wasn't made clear until the very end what happened to her on December 3rd, we knew all along that something bad must have happened for her to have changed identities so many times and moved around. It must have been a relief for her to work for a man with dementia because she could share pieces of her life with him without worrying he would reveal her identity. In the end, she seems to have been the only one who survived relatively unscathed. She suffered a lot, to be sure, but she managed to evade Josey and his gang. I wonder where her story will lead next. Will she go back home? Will she continue on as an ER nurse?


message 28: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Caroline,

Thanks for those interesting comments, and thanks and Happy New Year to all who have contributed to this discussion.

This was my first attempt at moderating a discussion so apologies for any shortcomings - I should also apologise for not re-reading the book, which I read early, when it came out in UK paperback in October.

Since it appears that I am the only one on this page who didn't give it the full 5 stars, I should probably explain my reservations - for me the book could have been a couple of hundred pages shorter without losing any of its power, but it is undeniably impressive and many of the voices have stayed with me.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2299 comments Portia wrote: "Am I correct that Nina Burgess, Kim Clarke, and Dorcas Palmer are all the same woman? I got the idea that each time this character finds herself in a bad position she "makes lemondade" by changing ..."

So was the nurse "Millicent" also Nina? And who was it that she called Kim at the very end?


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2299 comments So I finished the audiobook this morning. It grew on me over time. While the audiobook narrators were excellent in conveying the characters, I wish I had had a print copy as well, as I found it impossible to keep the dates straight and found myself confused a lot once the dates started jumping around. I liked the portrayal of the Jamaican history and how much of the CIA intervention in the 70's was focused on Bob Marley.

As to the dead Sir Arthur Jennings character -- I did not find that he added anything to the story.


message 31: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Linda,

In the first section she was Nina, and Kim was her sister, whose name she adopted as her first pseudonym...


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2299 comments Hugh wrote: "Linda,

In the first section she was Nina, and Kim was her sister, whose name she adopted as her first pseudonym..."


That I got but I guess I assumed she used Kim's name because Kim was dead because otherwise there would be two Kim's in the same town and wouldn't that expose her to discovery?


message 33: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "Hugh wrote: "Linda,

In the first section she was Nina, and Kim was her sister, whose name she adopted as her first pseudonym..."

That I got but I guess I assumed she used Kim's name because Kim w..."

I don't think I thought that Kim was dead, but I'd have to re-read the first two sections to be sure...


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2299 comments Hugh wrote: "I don't think I thought that Kim was dead, but I'd have to re-read the first two sections to be sure... "

Oh, I don't think she was because at the very end the nurse calls her. I was just trying to explain why I was not sure that Dorcas was the same person as Kim with the boyfriend, Nina, and the nurse! But that, I think, is because there were so many names and by listening (rather than reading a print copy).


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "That I got but I guess I assumed she used Kim's name because Kim was dead because otherwise there would be two Kim's in the same town and wouldn't that expose her to discovery? .."

She was using the name Kim when she was living in Montego Bay after fleeing Kingston, so they were not in the same town.

I could not have followed this book at all as an audiobook. As it was I was frequently flipping back and forth.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2299 comments Whitney wrote: "She was using the name Kim when she was living in Montego Bay after fleeing Kingston, so they were not in the same town."

Thanks Whitney! I missed that. Someday when there are inexpensive used copies around, I may be motivated to read it in print. The audiobook was well done but I was quite lost at times!


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Hugh wrote: "Caroline,

Thanks for those interesting comments, and thanks and Happy New Year to all who have contributed to this discussion.

This was my first attempt at moderating a discussion so apologies f..."


No need for any apologies Hugh - you did a great job!

I think I would have greatly struggled with this book if I'd listened to it as an audiobook too - had hard enough time keeping up with Harry August and it was no where near as long!


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
Yes, thanks for moderating, Hugh! I suspect we may have a few stragglers showing up in the future as well. Hopefully they will revive the discussion.

The star rating is so subjective. I think I'm a little too free and easy with my 4 and 5 stars, but "really liked it" or "loved it" is how I feel about most the books I finish, whether fun, cotton candy books or more serious literary endeavors.


message 39: by Portia (last edited Jan 01, 2016 10:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Portia Hugh, I was voted down on this book in another group, so, because you were willing to take it on, I got to read it!

Many thanks!!


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2299 comments Hugh, Tough book to do your first moderation about!! I think you did great.


message 41: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Thanks for all of the votes of confidence!


message 42: by Johanna (last edited Jan 03, 2016 11:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Johanna | 4 comments This was the best book I read in 2015, although I thought the end dragged on a bit and could have been shorter.

Nina/Kim/Dorcas are a prototype for island women, who suffer multitudes of inappropriate lovers and brutal life reversals, and who still manage to survive and carve out decent lives for themselves.


Whitney | 2066 comments Mod
The Guardian Books Podcast has a second episode with Marlon James talking about A Brief History. Good stuff, with a few things touched on that came up here. When asked why the title, James had two answers, first one was that it was ironic, like the "Oxford Concise English Dictionary", second answer was that he didn't remember.

He also briefly discussed the man who inspired the Arthur Jennings character, who James describes as the JFK of Jamaica.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/audi...


message 44: by Hugh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2574 comments Mod
Thanks Whitney


Michael Finocchiaro (fino) | 1 comments Sorry I missed this group read but I read 7 Killings this year and loved it (and reviewed it here on GR of course!)


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