A Brief History of Seven Killings


I’ve been a huge fan of the singer Bob Marley ever since I was a kid. I’m probably dating myself here, but my parents had a record player, and we used to listen to Bob Marley and the Wailers all the time.

I”ll admit though that I never actually dug deeper into his lyrics and background. I just learnt the lyrics and sang along to hits without realizing what it all meant.

So, it came as a bit of a surprise to me last year when I learnt that Bob Marley had almost been shot dead, and that there was a whole, hidden conspiracy behind that incident.

I learnt about this of course when A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James won the Man Booker prize last year, and I automatically added it to my TBR list.

Book Synopsis

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.

The gunmen were never brought to justice and their identities remain a mystery.
~ Synopsis from goodreads

Overall, I loved this book. It’s a huge in scope book and the synopsis above really doesn’t highlight all of that.

This book is so much more than the story of a single shooting. It really tells the story of Jamaica in the 1970s, and the rise of the drug mafia in the USA in the 1980s. And because of the time period, there is the whole environment of the Cold war era shenanigans layered on to it.

So, if you are looking for a thriller, but not sure what you want – espionage, drugs, rock n roll, or mafia, well, you need to pick this one up. It has all these elements and more.

It also has a four-page list of characters, places, and times, so it is also what I might call (to put it mildly), a fairly complicated book. Also, each character narrates the story from his view-point, so all these different voices bewildered me at times. But it is these voices that tell in their own garbled way, the tales of all these gunmen, their fates, and eventually boiling down to the fate of one of the gunmen in particular – Josey Wales.

What confuses the story further is the language. The book is written in colloquial style – so it really is an eye-opening journey into Jamaican lingo, and filthy language. Words like bombocloth, r’asscloth, batty, and other words that I still only vaguely understand are scattered throughout the book. However, this colloquial quality also makes the book read authentic, and I mean really, really authentic.

There are also a few sex scenes, most of them depicting gay male sex. And a lot of violence, which escalates in brutality towards the end. It’s all contextual, and none of it felt like it didn’t belong in the book. But still if all these things disturb you, you are better off skipping this one.

I didn’t really mind any of all this. I mean, it is a story about seven killings, so by definition, it is a violent book.

What disappointed me a tad bit is that Bob Marley (never actually referenced by name, just called The Singer) doesn’t really anchor the book like I expected. There is the bare minimum about his life and music. The story actually slides around him; the actual stars in the book are the Jamaican mafia hoods:

  • Papa-Lo – who wants to be remembered as the man who brings peace to the ghetto.
  • Josey Wales – Cunning, street smart, and shrewd, he watches out for any opportunity to extend his empire.
  • Weeper – whose story somehow moved me the most.
  • Eubie – who has very little story time but manages to dominate what little space he has.

The story of their drugs empire is told sometimes through the eyes of bystanders – Nina Burgess and Alex Pierce who stumble upon the truth of what happened to Bob Marley/The Singer that fateful evening, and then spend the rest of their lives living in fear.

How much of this book is based on fact?

I did some googling and this is all I can for sure tell you:

Some of the events mentioned in the book (such as Bob Marley’s peace concert, the elections, the political parties, the shootings) are true. Ghetto names have been changed, and no real mobster, or CIA operatives names are used.

But beyond that, it’s very hard to separate fact from fiction in this one. Some of the mafia stuff may be true, but I find it hard to believe that James managed to dig up precise details and still lives to tell the tale.

Here is a photo I dug up from The Guardian that shows a still of Bob Marley performing in that infamous Peace concert just the day after getting shot. I got goose bumps just from looking at it.

Bob Marley's peace concert

Bob Marley’s peace concert

Last Thoughts

Overall, a fantastic read. Not for everyone, but once I finished the book, I felt such a deep sense of satisfaction that only comes from reading an epic well told.

Btw, if you are interested in a crackling good read about this shooting, read this Guardian article. Engrossing stuff!

So, that’s my summation of the nearly two months of reading this book. It was hard to read all at once, and I stopped and started multiple times, until somewhere around part 2 where the story sunk its hooks into me.

Have you read this book? After this review, do you plan on reading it?

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  • Although I do not like violence or much sex in my books, I really do want to give this one a try. Thanks for the honest review and forewarning of the aforementioned! 🙂

    • Nishita

      @disqus_DQaYnsL8NC:disqus You’re welcome, Lynn. Thanks for dropping by.

  • Karen

    i have this to read fr my booker prize project and am definitely intimidated by it…

    • Nishita

      @disqus_gmoXW9BOB2:disqus It is a very plot-driven book, so it drew me in a lot more than some other Booker novels that are reflective/philosophical/thoughtful in nature.

      That said, it’s also a crude book – or rather the characters are very crude, so I got turned off many times.

      I did some googling and found that HBO is making a TV series out of this book. I think it would make a great TV series, it’s kind of written in that format.

      • Karen

        I might have to work myself up to it – choose some less challenging ones first

  • I’m so intimidated by this book! With the dialect AND the length AND the extraordinary complexity. I’m just not sure that I have two months to dedicate to it. :p However, Marlon James has said his next book is going to be like African Game of Thrones, and I don’t even care how long that book is going to be, I am going to be HERE. FOR. IT.

    • Nishita

      @readingtheend:disqus I heard about that African Game of Thrones. And I am all aboard that train. I think he has the literary and investigative chops to do a good job of it.

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