A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS
By Marlon James
Oneworld/Paperback/704 pages/ $17.82/Major bookstores
Starting with the ironic "brief" in the title, nothing is what one expects in this doorstopper of a novel by Marlon James.
He takes as his inspiration the laidback soul vibe of reggae superstar Bob Marley and pays his homage in explicit gangster rap, hardcore, uncensored and pitched to shock.
Violence liberally punctuates the pages, bullets ricochet between paragraphs and expletives hack into the rhythm of sentences written in musical Jamaican patois.
A Brief History Of Seven Killings is inspired by the real-life attempt made on Marley's life in 1976 by seven unknown gunmen ahead of a major concert the singer planned to hold and amid unprecedented gang violence before national elections.
Kingston-born James provides the gunmen, who were never caught, with identities, context to explain their actions and imagines their probable future all the way to 1991 - 10 years after Marley's death from cancer.
So far, so intriguing.
But what could have been a thunderclap of a book about the history and politics of a country little examined in English-language literature instead peters out into repetitive sound and fury with its chorus of characters sounding irritatingly like one another.
This harmony is good for a rap group, but not for a 700-page novel with a cast of characters that spans three pages and takes far too long to make the reader care about any one.
In spite of helpful chapter headings with the name of each narrator, sometimes only the switch between patois and American English helps to indicate which storyline the reader is following.
Drug lords sound almost like their strung-out, angry young gunmen and two warring sisters begin to sound so much like each other that by the end of the book, one is hard-pressed to decide which one of their stories is concluding.
Just as putting together a guitarist, drummer and a lead vocalist does not guarantee good sound, James has a sense of story, poetic rhythm and history, but tries to pack in so much information that much of it is lost.
His plot begins with CIA operatives collaborating with Colombian druglords in Jamaica, in a bid to halt the worrying spread of communism after Cuba's decisive win in the "Bay of Pigs fiasco" and ends worryingly lost in New York crack houses.
With the relentless violence and almost comic interludes between hired killers and their victims, this book is for fans of splatterporn.
For those not quite sold on the genre, James offers only a little to change their mind.
Some reviewers have compared him with film-maker Quentin Tarantino, but I think they share only the latter's most annoying traits, such as long digressions right in the middle of a punchy action sequence.
Some moments do haunt. Marley's presence permeates the novel as "the Singer", a larger- than-life figure whose international reputation as a musician who sings of peace and love is overshadowed here by his cult-like following in Jamaica and dealings with shady politicians.
Marley's lyrics infuse the prose of the book, chanted alike by infuriated youth from hellish slums and middle-class women seeking escape from their dead-end lives.
His escape from the gunmen only cements his deity status and his final death in 1981 plays out as a tragic and ironic cadenza in a main symphony that fails to be epic on its own.
• This review first appeared in print in The Straits Times on Oct 4. To read reviews of the other five novels on the Man Booker shortlist, go to str.sg/Z6pv.