Books on GIF #5 — 'A Brief History of Seven Killings' by Marlon James


Books on GIF is a review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'A Brief History of Seven Killings' by Marlon James.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

The book centers around the Dec. 3, 1976, assassination attempt on Bob Marley, referred to here as 'The Singer,' two days before he was to perform at the Smile Jamaica Concert.

Here's Marley showing his wounds at the concert.*

The Singer himself is not a character here. But like the eye of a hurricane, he is the invisible pivot around which the action happens leading up to the shooting and in the decades after.

The Kingston of 1976 is plagued by violence — rival political factions used street gangs to exert power and influence elections.  The Smile Jamaica Concert was an attempt to counter the rampant shootings and murder.

'A Brief History of Seven Killings' vividly recreates this world of gang violence, CIA intrigue and overall danger using ghosts, a pinch of magical realism and a prodigious cast of characters that rivals 'Game of Thrones.'

I was really stoked to read this book: It won the Man Booker Prize, Jamaica is fascinating, who doesn't love Bob Marley? and it has a shiny yellow cover.** I wanted desperately to like it.

There was tremendous potential here. A fascinating story and a noble attempt to tell it. But this was my reaction:

Why? James explains in the afterward: 

'The problem was...'

He's right. There was no main character to care about. There was no narrative spine. I felt James tried get out of this problem by using clever tricks and writerly jujitsu — all the characters, all the history, all the patois, all the ghosts, all the em-dashes instead of quotes — to overwhelm the reader:

And it goes on for page after page after page after page after 686 pages:

'A Brief History of Seven Killings,' by Marlon James was published in 2014 by Riverhead Books. 686 pages.

What's next? In the coming weeks, I'll review 'Hill' by Jean Giono, 'Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art' by Phoebe Hoban and 'A Time for Everything' by Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others.

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* This GIF comes from the 2012 documentary 'Marley,' which was on TV this weekend and provides even more detail and context about the assassination attempt.
** The Wall Street Journal recently did a trend piece about how publishers are using this color yellow to attract book buyers.