Marlon James' demanding, brilliantly executed third novel is based with extreme artistic license on the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its connection to the Jamaican gang wars between the supporters of the ruling People's National Party (PNP) and the rival (and U.S.-backed) Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) with the role of the CIA very much a presence. From there the story moves on to the Miami and New York drug wars of the 1980s and 1990s.
In this novel — and surely in life — the planned assassination of "the Singer" (the Bob Marley of this book) is only one element in the CIA's effort to unseat the government of Prime Minister Michael Manley. Aiming for civil breakdown, they have shipped in a large supply of automatic weapons, left them in crates on the pier, and given the nod to the JLP-backing gang — enemy, naturally, of the gang that supports the PNP. The result is an enormous escalation of violence in Kingston, neighborhood against neighborhood, and the project of destabilization is well on the way.
That is the big picture, itself part of the even bigger one of the Cold War, huge forces that warp the lives of people lost to history, the sort of people who make up most of the novel's narrators: Papa Lo, "don" of JLP's "Copenhagen City" who achieved his power through coldblooded violence; Josey Wales, intent on usurping him, as ruthless and remorseless as the other was in his prime; a few lesser gang members in Kingston, Miami and New York; and Nina Burgess, who — longing for peace and a reasonable life out of Jamaica — adopts new identities, and is almost alone in her goodness. Also carrying the story — or stories — are an American journalist, a couple of CIA schemers and a dead man.
The novel's many, chronologically snarled strands are narrated, for the most part, in a Jamaican patois which, though essential to the book's sense of real lives, can be hard going for the uninitiated. Similarly, the story's non-chronological layering makes stiff demands on the reader's ability to keep everything and everyone straight. Still, this, too, is essential to the novel's character, reflecting the actual confusion of tangentially and covertly connected events. Beatings and rape are plentiful throughout, and exactly which seven of the countless killings are those of the title is what I call a mystery. Put plainly, "A Brief History of Seven Killings" calls for a stout heart, strong stomach and prodigious powers of concentration, but the reader so equipped will be rewarded with an experience he or she will not soon forget. The novel makes no compromises, but is cruelly and consummately a work of art.
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of "Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963."