If, by some extraordinary chance, Doctor Who ever appears in your back garden and says: ‘Do you want to go back to Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1970s?’, just thank him politely and carry on with your weeding. Truly, returning to this time is not something that can lead to any good. We think of political turbulence as Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader of the Labour Party. Yet the CIA and right-wing Cuban counter-revolutionaries are not, as far as one can deduce, teaching youngsters in the badlands of South London to fire M-16 carbines and detonate C4 plastic explosive. In Kingston at this time they were, says Marlon James, as part of a ghastly proxy conflict between ghetto gangs supporting either Michael Manley’s People’s National Party, affiliated to Castro and Russia, or the Jamaican Labour Party. In 1976, Bob Marley (‘the Singer’) was attacked in his home by seven gunmen. He survived, and the would-be assassins were never caught. The fall-out from this is spectacular, and unfolds over the next 20 years. Characters are motivated by a desire for money, status, cocaine, respect or revenge against some perceived slight – or, in some cases, all five. The construction of A Brief History of Seven Killings* – a variety of first-person narratives, speaking in sometimes hard-to-penetrate vernaculars as they give their versions of events – echoes the work of Denis Johnson and Irvine Welsh. This is not bad company. Don’t worry if your knowledge of 1970s Jamaican slang is not up to speed, you catch on fast and the rude words are nothing if not imaginative. James is a properly ambitious writer: as well as reggae, there are ghosts, a lot of gay sex and a an eye-watering massacre in a New York crack house. While the casual violence – murder, torture, the threat of rape – is, frankly, rather dispiriting, James’ writing is thrilling. There is a happy ending of sorts. Or at least the possibility of a hopeful ending. For one of the characters. Moral: there is always someone badder out there than the worst person you think you can imagine.
* Spoiler alert: there are far more than seven killings in this book. I gave up after 36. That was on about page 53.