The historical novel has always done well in the Booker. The last three winners (The narrow road to the deep north, The luminaries, Bring up the bodies) have all explored history in surprising ways. The two novels here both take a lesser known part of history as their starting point for stories that try to fill the gaps in our knowledge about what happened before us.
Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American author, takes an historical document as her starting point. In 1527, the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and a crew of 600 men sailed from Spain to the Gulf Coast of the United States to claim “La Florida” for the Spanish crown. While the mission was a complete failure, four men survived, one of whom was an unnamed Moorish slave. When the official histories came out, he was whitewashed out of them. In The moor’s account, Lalami imagines his story.
There’s such scope here to really examine two linked concepts—the colonisation of an entire continent by Europeans juxtaposed with man who has been on the receiving end of that colonisation—and Lalami makes an attempt to explore both. Thought the main narrative of the novel concerns itself with this horrifically failed mission in Florida, the first half is also interspersed with flashbacks to Estebanico’s life before he became a slave. What is interesting about this history is that Estebanico chose to become a slave—he sold himself into the trade to give his family the money to survive after his own businesses . In some ways, then, he is not a typical slave—he is not the result of a conquest, but of a failure of the colonial system to provide for its subjects.
Perhaps this, then, is why he cannot seem to see that the mission he is on is not only doomed, but morally questionable. His entire account is so dry, so lacking in emotion, that it feels like we are reading a history as opposed to a diary. I’m not sure this is a deliberate choice on Lalami’s part, but it does distance the reader from the story, and results in a failure to make you care about what is happening both to Estebanico and his fellow travellers. Instead of making the history come alive, it is reduced to a series of events—some things happen to these people, but there doesn’t seem to be any emotional investment in what happens to them.
Marlon James, too, takes an obscure piece of history—the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in 1976—to begin his novel. But while The moor’s account becomes dry and stale, A brief history of seven killings brings to life a world full of colour, passion, drugs and death.
The first thing to note is that this schizophrenic novel is long. With a cast of hundreds, James takes us through the lead up to the event, as well as the ripple effect of it, with a chorus of voices that weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes for decades, and others for just a day. Despite this, each and every voice has its own strength, and it’s easy to pick up the threads, even if you are coming back to a perspective after several hundred pages.
The greatest strength of the novel is the first 250 pages, which tell with impressive detail the story not only of the people who decide to kill the Singer, as he is known here, but the people around them trying to make sense of Jamaica in the 1970s. There are the two warring gangs, Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes, who are terrorising the streets, and finding themselves more and more involved with politics. There’s Nina, out of a job and obsessed with the Singer. Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone journalist trying to file the greatest story on the Singer anyone has ever read. As each of them circle closer towards the big day, James show us a huge cross-section of people who call Jamaica home, and what this place is like as the Cold War rages on around them, and as Jamaica is pulling itself towards something resembling democracy.
Once the assassination attempt happens, though, these players scatter around the country and the continent, living their lives and moving on. Alex Pierce, the journalist, cannot help but continue investigating the story: who were the people who tried to kill the Singer? As he does, though, he finds himself drawn into a world he cannot handle.
It is here that Josey Wales, the deputy of Copenhagen City, comes into focus. This second half is really his story, as he becomes leader of the Storm Posse, an international drug trafficking organisation that goes between Jamaica and New York, cutting down all those who dare to get in its way. This gang becomes slowly more intertwined with both the characters from before the event, and Jamaica itself, as it tries to find a way beyond the gang violence and drug trade that defined it in the past. The big question, though, is whether this is possible when the relationship between the politicians and the gangs is so close.
A story so rooted in place could not be told in standard English. From Nina’s attempts to sound more posh to Josey’s refusal to speak anything other than Jamaican English, via a frighteningly large vocabulary of uniquely Jamaican expletives, James experiments with English in a way that no other novel on the shortlist does. This experimentation adds another layer of authenticity, and reminds the reader that, though this is history, it is a history that was experienced, and is still alive.
There’s no doubt that A brief history of seven killings is an impressive piece of work. It’s probably a little too long for its own good, and while the latter 350 pages don’t quite live up to the blisteringly good first 250, it is nevertheless a painfully intense novel that examines the people on the periphery, those who are caught up in a pivotal moment, and how their lives are shaped by it. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.