In December 1976, two days before the Smile Jamaica concert to promote political unity, armed gunmen walked into reggae star Bob Marley’s house at 56 Hope Road in Kingston and began shooting. Marley sustained injuries in his arm and chest; his wife, Rita, was hit as she raced to protect their children; and his manager, Don Taylor, was also injured. In Marlon James’ powerful new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, the attack is the centerpiece of a blistering commentary on Jamaica in the 1970s and its inextricable links both to Cold War politics and to the drug wars of the following decade.
Marley, here called “The Singer,” may be at the center of the story, but A Brief History of Seven Killings is a tapestry, not a portrait. James created an extensive cast of characters—gang leaders, CIA operatives, rogue agents, girlfriends, drug dealers, reporters and even a ghost or two—to tell this story of a country whose political instability was exploited by American interests, a tale that pulsates and spreads over three decades, traveling from Kingston to New York and back again.
Jamaican gang leaders Papa Lo, the head or “Don” of Copenhagen City, a slum area of Kingston, and his successor and sometime-rival Josey Wales, together with their enforcer, Weeper, dominate illegal activity on the island. When their younger associates ramp up the violence, the gangs are drawn into an even more dangerous world, one with ties to drug trafficking and, ultimately, the crack houses of New York and other American cities.
This is not an easy book. It’s complicated and bloody; the dialogue harsh and often profane. However, James—who won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award for The Book of Night Women, a clear-eyed and often brutal look at slavery in 18th-century Jamaica—is a superb craftsman, managing multiple characters and storylines with an elegance that is almost at odds with the gritty content. Behind the thuggery and carnage lies a belief that deliverance can be achieved through knowledge and self-awareness, which is very much in keeping with Marley’s legacy.
As the singer said in “Redemption Song,” the true cost of political freedom requires us to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery/none but ourselves can free our minds.” In A Brief History, James’ willingness to look squarely at his country’s difficult past makes this an important book—and a remarkable one.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with James about A Brief History of Seven Killings.