Listen. Dead people never stop talking.
Jamaica, 1976, and the country is at a tipping point. With just weeks until a general election, Bob Marley is planning a concert for peace, to unite the warring gangs and political parties. Around him spin the lives of gang kids, journalists, dons, forgotten one night stands, drug lords, hitmen and CIA operatives, not all of whom want him to succeed. Spanning years and continents, this is their story.
Well holy brutality, Batman. This novel, winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize, is an intricately plotted tale encompassing a vast cast of characters and spanning decades, peering in at lives filled with violence from the slums of Kingstown, to the crack dens of New York, all centering around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. This novel is not brief, nor does it contain a mere seven killings.
Marlon James, born in Jamaica himself, paints a vivid, brutal portrait of a country and culture that I knew nothing about, I am the whitest person in white-town and my entire store of knowledge about Jamaica came from Cool Runnings, so the political and social climate of 1970s Jamaica, even the fact that Bob Marley was nearly assassinated, was completely new to me. The central act of the whole thing may be the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, here referred to simply as the Singer, but it is a lot more than just this one story, he is more of an ethereal presence throughout the book than an actual character. Taking in politics, corruption and police brutality, the rise of the drug trade, mistreatment and devaluing of women, issues of race and nationality, gang enforcers, hitmen, drug dealers, journalists, CIA operatives and even a dead politician, this story has scope that is hard to describe concisely.
This novel has far more literary merit and technical skill than actual enjoyment for me, though at times it was a struggle it is easy to see why it received so much acclaim, but that doesn’t make it the most fun thing to read. The use of language and structure is to be awed at, use of patois for the Jamaican characters adds a real sense of authenticity to their voices (even if I struggle reading dialect), while at points James descends into poetry or just pages upon pages with no stopping for punctuation, just word vomit in an intricate stream. This is not a leave your brain at the door sort of book, it requires a commitment of both time and brain power, it is confusing and takes time to get a grasp on, it very much drops you in at the deep end, the opening chapter is narrated by a ghost for goodness sake, but in the end it comes together and is worth it.
This is not one for the faint of heart though, it is filled to the brim with violence that is both frequent and brutal, often of a sexual nature, and never shied away from. James never lets up, never allowing us the lessening of shock that prolonged and repeated exposure usually engenders, each terrible act just as horrifying as the last as it continues to bombard us, often out of the blue, always without mercy. Whether it is an act of police brutality, or a hit ordered by a don, every act of violence is visceral, sickening, but never gratuitous, we are never reveling in the gore, it is never glamourised or put on a pedestal, this is the reality of violence, a reality many people live, and it is not pretty.
Though intimidating to begin with it, a little bit of hard work, confusing and brutal and ugly and beautiful, this is well worth a read if you’re up for it. This is not going to be for everyone though, if you have problems with violence, sexual content or are just looking for something light, this is not going to be for you. But this is certainly a worthy winner of the Man Booker, and I’m glad that I read it.
Worth A Shot