Book Hangover (review of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James)

Have you ever finished a book and been unable to settle into reading another one for a few days?  Have you ever finished a book, started another one, but couldn’t get the characters from the previous book out of your mind?  Have you ever missed a book’s characters or the narrative voice?  If so, then you may be suffering from what I call a Book Hangover.

I’m in the middle of one of those myself.  The book that affected me so profoundly? Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings.  It took me two weeks to read all 688 pages.  I’m a fairly fast reader when I get the time to read, in between working and mothering and wife-ing.  So this one was physically with me longer than the average novel.

I can’t stop thinking about it.  I miss the characters, all ninety-billion of them, and I miss the setting, mainly Kingston, Jamaica, with some Bronx, NY thrown in at the last section.  I miss the skill with which James dove in and out of each character’s voice.  I’ve never read a novel in which the voices were so distinct.  And I love stories told from multiple perspectives.

This book is not easy – it commands your full attention and respect, which is part of the reason I love it.  Much of it is told in Jamaican patois; it takes a little while to get into the rhythm, but once I did, I was hooked.  ( I learned LOTS of new words, most of which are Jamaican oaths!)  Besides the rather foul language, there is a lot of graphic violence and some graphic sex.  This is not a book for the faint of heart or the easily offended.  But NONE of the potentially offensive elements in the book are thrown in for shock value.  They are in total keeping with who these characters are – and for the most part, these are criminals and other shady characters.

The novel hinges on the assassination attempt on Bob Marley at his house in December of 1976.  (I knew so little about Jamaican history before reading this that I didn’t even know there WAS an assassination attempt on Bob Marley!)  Marley is not mentioned by name; instead, he is called The Singer. Nor is his voice one of the characters that James writes.  The characters all hover around him, however – they all want something from him or want to kill him.  The CIA is involved, and there’s a reporter from Rolling Stone as well.  There’s even a ghost.  We go from the time period leading up to the attempt on Marley’s life, to two years later, then to New York in the 1980’s as the crack cocaine boom hits the streets.  The repercussions of the attempted murder ripple out for years and years for all of the characters.

Most of the men we read about are “bad” people – Jamaican mob dons, drug dealers, killers.  But dammit if James didn’t imbue them with so much vitality and humanity that I didn’t sympathize with just about every one of them.  I actually CRIED when one of these so-called bad men died.

It’s long, it’s harsh, it’s raw.  But it’s so incredibly vivid and brave that I can’t stop thinking about it.  While I was reading it, I thought I’d look forward to something lighter after I finished, but I’m finding that the next book pales in comparison – so vanilla!  I’m going to have to read Seven Killings again just to marvel at the high-wire act Mr. James pulls off.  I can already tell it will be one of my favorites of this year. Highly recommended.

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8 thoughts on “Book Hangover (review of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James)

  1. I know *exactly* what you mean by a book hangover. I had one after I read The Book Thief. In fact, I dreamed about it afterwards. It was a chilling dream. Thousands of people lined up in front of my front door, all refugees fleeing from the Nazis. They were carrying empty bowls. I stood in my front hall and ladled soup into the bowls from three large pots. After finishing the book, I started then stopped several books. It took about a week before I could get engaged in another story. Yeah. When that happens, it’s a book that you need to read more than once.

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  2. I love reading hangovers, so much more fun than the alcoholic kind 😉 They don’t happen very often though which is probably a good thing. But yes, it is definitely distressing to not be able to settle into the next book afterwards. I’ll have to tell my husband about the James book, he’s a Marley fan of sorts.

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  3. Interesting! I’ve considered reading this because of its inclusion in the Tournament of Books, but I’m concerned about its length. Shorter things are working better for me these days. But it will go on my TBR list to read at some point. You make it sound very appealing!

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    1. Rebecca, I know exactly what you mean about length. I have a busy three year old boy and a full-time job. Reading time is precious. But for some reason I rolled the dice on this one – good critical reviews, plus it fits my goal of reading more authors of color. I’m glad I took the chance. I tend to be REALLY enthusiastic about the books I love, so you might want to take my “review” (more like love letter) with a grain of salt. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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