The blurb of this book explains that it deals with an attempted assassination attempt on Bob Marley by seven unnamed gunmen. This does nothing to convey the complexity, subtlety and humanity of the novel.
Instead I’m going to have to do something new; rather than comparing a book to other books, I’m going to have to compare it to an incomparable TV show. In fairness, I realised that ‘The Wire‘ may have now been surpassed as TV writing and drama go from strength to strength, but when I first saw it (in a mammoth series of binge-watchings) it blew me away. I had never seen anything like it for strength of characterisation, uncompromising ambition and outstanding writing. ‘The Wire’ is a Baltimore-set drama which presents the ‘war on drugs’ in a more complex and nuanced way than I had believed possible on TV. It refuses to give easy answers and shows that no problem in modern society exists in isolation.
Back to ‘A Brief History’, James shows that the assassination attempt on Marley (known as ‘The Singer’ in the novel) was because he was headlining at a ‘Peace Concert’ which had been organised by the Jamaican president. The president, of course, belongs to a political party and all political parties have their own gang supporters The gangs control different areas around Kingston and, related to their national political affiliations, are also subject to influences from the CIA and the USSR. These groups may also be implicated in the assassination attempt. There are also drugs from Cuba and guns from who-knows-where hovering in the background. And music journalists and tourists trying to get a piece of authentic Rasta action. Like I said, it’s complicated.
I may have made some mistakes in the paragraph above. ‘A Brief History’ is wonderfully complex and I would have skipped back several times while reading to check where I was, only I was too excited to find out what would happen next. The structure of the novel is masterful, beginning before the assassination attempt and leading up to it. Then it jumps ahead to a crime-riddled New York City, as the political and civil unrest from nineteen seventies Jamaica spills out of its island home. Once again, James shows how hard it is to contain and give closure to deep-rooted wrongs.
As you would expect, given its subject matter, ‘A Brief History’ is not a comforting or easy read. ‘Wired’ magazine compared it to David Foster Wallace and Quentin Tarantino, and the descriptions of brutality are shocking and frequent. It’s a bold but also an appropriate choice, anything less would have sugar-coated the historical basis of the novel. What I admire however is how sensitively this violent world is presented. What I mean is that James brilliantly depicts gratuitous violence without it feeling gratuitous on the part of the narrative. Similarly he gives a powerful presentation of the homophobia, sexism and racism of this world, without his work ever being itself homophobic, sexist or racist. Just to pick up on the sexism, the characters are nearly all male, but there is still one female drug lord who is just as terrifying as her male counterparts. More significantly, as the novel moves between characters, in either first or third person narration, a major part of the book is dominated by a female voice. The character this voice belongs to is interesting in her own right and her story is vital in offsetting the machoism of the rest of the novel. Just as violence, poverty and politics affect both genders, the novel shows that ‘history’ is made by everybody.
I realise my review is becoming as sprawling as the book itself. I’ll just content myself with adding that the writing is superb. I believed every character, no matter their background, nationality or level of drug-addled incoherence. ‘A Brief History’ has to be one of my top reads this year. I want it to win the 2015 Man Booker, I want to read everything else written by Marlon James and I can’t wait to see what he’ll publish next. Oh, and I also want to listen to lots more of Bob Marley’s music because it sings and pulses through the novel, providing a background tempo of hope that still endures throughout the violence and brutality.