I started reading Marlon James’ epic novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in May 2015 and did not finish until January 2016.
I’m not a slow reader. In the past year I’ve read lengthy novels such as The Famished Road and The Wizard of the Crow in two weeks. I am also not averse to authors who utilize stream of consciousness, a complex technique that shifts between the interior monologues of multiple characters. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of my favorite novels of all time. But A Brief History bored me to the point that, for months, I lost motivation to finish.
If you are familiar with this blog, you will know that I am a huge fan of Marlon James. His second novel The Book of Night Women, is among the best I’ve read in recent years. But unfortunately, A Brief History took me on a journey that was cumbersome and painfully slow. If you don’t believe me, note that the first few pages of the introduction include a list of roughly 30 characters, some introduced only briefly to the slowly building complex plot via stream of consciousness. Although his writing in A Brief History is highly descriptive, illustrating James’ immense talent for language, the plot crawls, at times painfully, throughout much of the 680 pages
I don’t want to talk at length about what I did not like about this book. We Afro-Librarians prefer to leave lengthy book reviews to critics. This post is simply to share my thoughts on this highly lauded novel since so many readers have asked (via Twitter) for our opinion. And there were beautiful moments and applause worthy passages. The depiction of each significant death was simply poetic, magical even. So if you’re interested in 20th century historic fiction novel depicting Jamaica, politics and the nuance that is Bob Marley, this book will not disappoint. But readers be warned, this novel requires patience and stamina!
I’ll admit, this book has been sitting on my shelf since 2011. But after writing last week’s post, “Magical Realism in Afro-literature”, I was finally motivated to dust it off and crack the binding. What better time to pour myself into James’ haunting yet ethereal slave narrative than a month in which we celebrate magical realism and its contribution to the literary world?
Set in Jamaica, The Book of Night Women is a rare mixture of beautiful, lyrical prose and engaging narrative. It isn’t often that I am captivated by a novel within the first few pages (or first few chapters) but The Book of Night Women had me hooked after this powerful first paragraph:
“People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red. Not when the midwife know that the mother shed too much blood, and she who don’t reach fourteen birthday yet speak curse ‘pon the chile and the papa, and then drop down dead like old horse. Not when blood spurt from the skin, or spring from the axe, the cat-o-nine, the whip, the cane and the blackjack and every day in slave life is a day that colour red. It soon come to pass when red no different from white or blue or nothing. Two black legs spread wide and a mother mouth screaming. A weak womb done kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.”
Admittedly, the quote above is a bit lengthy but WOW! I can almost hear the author’s cadence as I read and feel the character’s energy seeping from the page. It’s no secret that I believe a strong opening is an indication of a great novel. My theory has so far proven true with this text. I initially planned to read only the first few paragraphs but 50 pages later, I was completely immersed in the world Marlon James created.
Needless to say, I’m pleasantly surprised with the author’s talent thus far. I love the feeling of unexpectedly falling in love with a book . . .