Audiobook Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (published by Riverhead Books)
I started listening to this audiobook in December 2016 and finished in June 2017. That’s seven months of listening to this twenty-six hour audiobook but boy, what a journey! This is an EPIC book. And what an incredible performance by the seven audiobook narrators. There were a few times that I thought about throwing in the towel but I’m pleased I stuck it out as I *loved* this book by the end.
The story is told from numerous character point of views who dip in and out but are all inextricably linked. It spans from the late seventies through to the early nineties and centres on the people and outcomes of the botched assassination attempt of reggae singer Bob Marley in December 1976, before the general election and a few days before the free peace concert that ‘the singer’ (as he’s referred to throughout) goes on to play at before leaving the country and not returning for two years. The singer is not one of the characters who speaks directly, but instead voices are given to the gunmen who stormed his house, the gang leaders, the American CIA operative posted in Jamaica, a journalist, an accidental female witness to the assassination, gang foot soldiers, drug dealers, even a ghost…
The reader delves deep into the minds of the characters, their mix of thoughts, deliberations, memories, threw me right into the moment, with the internal monologue peppered with dialogue and action. What I found remarkable is that each narrative is distinct. Some are harrowing, some and frantic because the character is high on cocaine, some are funny. I think this is where listening to the audiobook really brought this novel to life for me as I imagine the strong Jamaican dialect would be tough to read, but authentic and immersive when heard. I also loved the American, Cuban and Colombian accents too.
There are three main characters who we hear from throughout that tie this story together. The one I enjoyed the most was Josey Wales, an intelligent, brutal, ambitious gang leader who is one of the singer’s failed assassins. He wrenches control from the head gang-man, and friend of the singer, Papa-lo and then goes on to become a notorious gangster running the crack market in NYC and Miami. Josey is remarkably controlled and, at times, witty, until there’s an ‘incident’ at a crackhouse and he suddenly draws the attention of the DEA / CIA / authorities. Although Josey was a despicable character I really enjoyed spending time in his mind.
The other two characters are Alex Pierce, an American music journalist who uncovers information about the Marley assassination attempt that sees Josey Wales send an assassin to silence him, and Nina Burgess who witnesses the assassination attempt and runs for her life for the two decades following. Another character we hear from early on, is the American CIA operative Barry Diflorio, whose story I really enjoyed.
This novel is a work of fiction that centres on the real-life event of Marley’s near assassination but the characters are all fictional, loosely based on real life people at the time. It calls to attention the relationship between organised crime gangs and politicians, racism, the class system, the music scene, Marley’s personality and so many aspects of Jamaican history and culture that I felt I learnt tons from this novel.
However, at times, a few of the narratives dragged. For example, Bam-Bam, one of the hitmen who is off his head on cocaine and is running from Josey Wales (who is eliminating all the hitmen) and then spends a long time dying. The joy of an audiobook though, is that at any point I felt my attention waning, I speeded these bits up to x2 speed to get through them quickly!
If you are looking for a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, novel then this is for you. If you are put off by sounding out the Jamaican patois whilst reading, then I’d definitely suggest listening to the audiobook.
My rating: 4/5
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