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I’ve always been fascinated by couples who frequently argue but still have a solid long term relationship. As someone who thrives best in romances which are calm and stable, the sort of fiery atmosphere around relationships filled with cycles of fierce arguments and amorous make ups is perplexing to me. So I felt fully absorbed following the story of Roy and Celestial who are at the centre of Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage”. They are prone to bickering because of issues to do with ambition, money, pride and jealousy. Nevertheless the intense bond they share in their relatively new marriage promises a long and fruitful life together – until a fateful night when Roy is accused of raping a woman and sentenced to a long term in prison.

Having just recently read James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” I was conscious of the superficial parallels in the stories of these two novels where a promising relationship is shattered when a young black man is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. However, Tayari Jones’ novel is distinctly different in its style and focus. Much of the text is composed of letters during Roy’s time in jail. It’s so interesting reading stories told in epistolary form because they show how the characters shape their own truth. Roy and Celestial earnestly communicate their thoughts to each other, but also subtly try to get the upper hand. So the arguments which have always been a part of their relationship continue as they both change and grow in environments vastly different from each other. Roy becomes more hardened as he’s subjected to the strain of prison life while Celestial thrives as an artist and entrepreneur creating specialist dolls.

Following this couple’s letters is a really moving and dramatic way of depicting how people in a loving committed relationship can grow apart and become alien to each while still retaining an ardent bond. Interspersed with their separate accounts are the points of view from family members and a man named Andre who becomes an important part of Celestial’s life during Roy’s absence. There are also a lot of dramatic twists! Secrets from the past surface and unexpected occurrences shape their journeys in a way which made this a gripping story. A number of teasing ambiguities are also left in the readers’ mind and you’ll be eager to discuss it with other people who’ve read it. Because of this I’m not surprised Oprah chose it for her book club last year.

Something this novel does really powerfully is show how the fact of Roy and Celestial’s race naturally has an impact upon their lives – especially living in a society where black men are often charged for crimes simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – but it doesn’t wholly define who they are or the nature of their relationship. It’s impossible to say how their lives together would have played out if Roy hadn’t been incarcerated for years. But the story meaningfully describes how the close connection between these two ebbs and flows as they change as individuals over time. Roy, Celestial and Andre all have such distinct, finely-detailed characters so I felt like I could really hear their voices and understand their different points of view by the end of the novel. In this way the book came alive for me and really tugged on my heart strings.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTayari Jones
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Like many people, I was fascinated by the surreal atmosphere and ambiguous meaning of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's novel “Fever Dream” when it first appeared in English a couple of years ago. Now a collection of her short fiction has just been published and it's of a similar sinister vibe with odd twists of logic that often veer into near nightmares. Here are stories of children that transform into butterflies, businessmen who are turned into farm hands, a dissatisfied wife who meets an amorous merman and a daughter whose new diet consists solely of consuming living birds. This subject matter could easily feel whimsical if it were written by another author, but Schweblin maintains elements of psychological truth so this fiction continues to feel real even if it's filled with the fantastical. Her stories often feel like puzzles where the meaning is tantalizingly close and I could solve it if I could just work out the intricately constructed design she's skilfully created. But, of course, these stories offer no definitive answers – just glimpses of the inexpressible fears, desires and carnage which simmer just under the surface of our everyday reality.

The way Schweblin approaches common themes from an unlikely angle brings out a new kind of emotional honesty. So subjects such as infidelity, miscarriages, eating disorders, spousal abuse, body image and depression are explored in these stories but in a way which defamiliarises the way we commonly think about them. Although the stories are fantasies they deal with serious issues. For instance, in the story 'Preserves' a woman whose unborn child dies in uterus goes through the process of pregnancy with the support of her family even though they know the child will be stillborn. It shows how the idea of a new child forms so fully in the minds of the family its due to be born into and becomes part of their lives even before its arrival. So the story considers how to deal with feelings of mourning which can arise in this tragic situation common to many families. It's a different kind of magical thinking from what Kit De Waal describes in her novel “The Trick to Time”.

Another story which had a strong resonance for me was the titular tale 'Mouthful of Birds' which describes the perspective of a father whose daughter begins only consuming living birds and refuses to engage in discussions. He's separated from his wife and when the daughter is left in his care he witnesses her deteriorating health because he doesn't want to support her barbaric new diet. In one of the few instances when the daughter speaks she asks if her father loves her and in this moment there is so much unexpressed longing and sorrow as she desperately tries to find a way to control her crumbling family and situation.

The way Schweblin approaches her subject matter feels most poignant when it’s teased out in her longer stories. I felt some of the less successful and least impactful tales were also some of the shorter pieces such as ‘Butterflies’ and 'Rage of Pestilence'. In these it seemed like a central concept was compressed too explicitly into surreal imagery. Some stories also stretch too far into the oblique and become twisted up in a convoluted structure such as 'Olingiris'. Schweblin’s ideas come more alive when they are situated in longer stories such as ‘Headlights’ where brides left on the roadside congregate into a vengeful swarm or 'Heads Against Concrete' where a narrator’s violent impulses, emotional disconnection and racial prejudice are translated into “high” art. Better yet, some of the most eerie tales are where the central object of the story remains entirely unseen and unnamed such as a couple’s desperate attempts to “capture” a child in 'On the Steppe' or a village of vanished children in 'Underground'.

Samanta Schweblin & writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation

Not all the stories in this book are so outrageously bizarre. Some such as 'Santa Claus Sleeps at our House' and 'The Test' are so deeply ensconced in the narrator’s perspective that reality seems to be shifting around them due to innocence or guilt. Still others movingly capture people’s concealed emotions such as 'The Size of Things' where a rich, successful man steadily regresses while inhabiting a toy shop. Other stories grope at understanding the unknowable emotional condition of others such as a man that suffers from depression in 'My Brother Walter' or the story ‘Irman’ where the death of a man’s wife swiftly leaves him perilously helpless.

Overall I loved getting lost in these tales with their refreshing flavour for the absurd. They brim with a vibrant creativity and I admire the way they offer a warped counter reality to life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Set in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” portrays a city disintegrating under the strain of sectarian violence and dodgy leadership as the national military and American forces unevenly strive to establish order. Buildings are crumbling, families are moving out of the country and, after a junk dealer stitches together the body parts of bomb victims, this newly formed monster sets out on a killing rampage. I read this novel because it’s on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fascinating for me reading this modern reimagining of Frankenstein after having so recently read Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It’s notable how the novels are framed in a similar way. Shelley’s novel is a story about an explorer recording a dying doctor’s dramatic supernatural story. Saadawi similarly creates a story within a story about a man who wrote a novel after listening to the outrageous story he hears on a recording device. The way both Shelley and Saadawi’s novels are structured remove the reader slightly from the obviously fantastical elements of their stories and turn them into something more symbolic. Where Shelley concentrated more on themes of science and ambition, Saadawi is more concerned with creating a powerful message about the perpetual violence which is steadily destroying a great historic city.

One of the things which makes this novel so wonderfully engaging is its intricate and fascinating depiction of a community populated by quirky individuals. There’s a pious old lady who lives with a mangy cat and who is dismissed by many in the community as crazy. Her family, estate agents, furniture salesman and even a government housing project are trying to convince her to sell her stately home stuffed with antique furniture and art, but she stubbornly stays in place waiting for the return of her son who was probably lost in battle many years ago. There’s an ambitious journalist who finds himself inducted into high society and introduced to powerful government officials after a recent promotion. Amidst these newfound rings of privileged knowledge and covert dealings he finds it difficult to know who to trust. There’s an astrologer with many faces who advises a dodgy government agency about likely future acts of violence occurring in the city. It all builds to a complex portrait of a community beleaguered by unclear leadership and beset by perpetual random acts of violence.

This is what makes the undead patchwork monster or “Whatsitsname” so poignant as he’s an amalgam of all the vengeful feeling and backstabbing which is utterly destroying this city. At first his mission to avenge the deaths of all the victims he’s made up from has a clear plan of action. But, as time goes on, he understands his existence can’t persist without adding new pieces to himself whether they are hapless victims or not. The notion of innocent and guilty becomes very muddled – just as it is for any person of a particular nationality whose country has been embroiled in a complicated history of political battles and religious strife. This figure of a mythic rampaging monster who can’t be killed becomes a poignant symbol of ever-present spirit of violence which lurks in the shadowy corners of our society. This is a highly perceptive, original and strong novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAhmed Saadawi
2 CommentsPost a comment
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The novel “Kintu” by debut novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has been frequently compared to Yaa Gyasi’s hugely popular “Homegoing” because of its structure as an African family epic. However, “Homegoing” begins in the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) and “Kintu” takes place in the Buganda kingdom (today known as the Republic of Uganda). Makumbi’s ambitious tale begins in 1750 when Kintu Kidda, the leader (Ppookino) of the Buddu Province, travels with a group of men to swear loyalty to the new king (kabaka) of the entire Buganda kingdom. Kintu demonstrates what a savvy politician he is making alliances and also balancing his time between his many wives that he’s taken for political reasons. A tragedy occurs concerning Kintu’s adopted son Kalema and this sets in motion a series of calamities surrounding his favoured wife Nnakato and his heir Baale. It also sparks a legendary curse upon his family which is still felt amidst his descendants who we meet when the book leaps forward in time to the recent past. As the novel relates the backstories and present conflicts of several of these descendants we gradually understand why the clan attempts to reform and finally put this curse to rest. This deeply compelling and fascinating story describes the way oral history and local mythology continues to play a part in the daily lives and complicated political attitudes of people in Uganda today.

I was impressed by the way Makumbi organised the stories and characters in a way which is mostly easy to follow despite the intricate complexities of this tale. As with most big epics, it helps that there is a family tree at the beginning of the book to refer back to. Nevertheless it can be difficult to keep track of them all because (like when reading a big Russian saga) many characters have a few different names or nicknames. One character’s name is actually changed multiple times between his birth and his independent decision as a teenager to take a different surname. Matters are complicated a bit more because many of the characters are twins so it can be hard at times to sort out the relationships between people and the multiple branches of this large family. But Makumbi has that wonderful gift as a storyteller of drawing you into the immediate dilemmas of her characters so it’s like you can imaginatively see them in a three-dimensional way and, even if you don’t immediately grasp their exact placement within the family, you are still gripped by the drama of their situation.

Story-telling and the way stories morph over time is such an integral part of this novel. I found it quite moving how the book begins by showing the reality of the legendary Kintu and his family and then moves to the present where his tale has been mythologised and takes on different versions. The way the “curse” manifests within the lives of his different descendants reflects poignantly on their situations either as a religious fanatic whose sect is rapidly shrinking, a scholar who lived in political exile throughout the heinous killings of Idi Amin’s regime, a woman haunted by a sexual attack or a man terrified that he may be HIV+. The differences between these characters reflect the wide diversity of attitudes, beliefs and economic positions of citizens in Uganda today. Class conflicts felt between the Tutsi population and other groups reverberates from Kintu’s time all the way through to the present. But I particularly appreciated how many of the characters stand out as individuals (not just representatives of specific social issues). For instance, there’s a particularly powerful depiction of a strong warrior leader during Kintu Kidda’s time whose bisexuality is practiced openly and a daughter of the family in the current time period who is a notorious military leader.

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I enjoyed the way “Kintu” incorporates history into the present day lives of its character as a way of showing how people in Uganda might differently express their sense of national identity. As a country that gained independence from Britain in the early 1960s and then suffered from a military coup and a dictator's rule in the 70s, different political parties have warred between whether the country should remain a republic or revert to their distinct pre-colonial kingdoms. At one point a character explains: “After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it.” Makumbi's novel provides a compelling overview of Uganda's internal struggles over national identity while also drawing the reader into the particular conflicts that her dynamic characters face.

“Kintu” is a novel that requires a lot of concentration, but contains many delights, psychological insight and drama that I found consistently entertaining while providing a compelling look at a fascinating country.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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RuPaul's Drag Race has found a global audience in recent years and I've been a huge follower of it since the third season. It's still one of the highlights of my life hearing RuPaul praise my blog on his podcast. (You can listen to the audio of this at the bottom of my intro page here.) The widespread fandom of this show has popularised drag as an art form again so it seems like the right time to look back at some of the most significant drag movements of recent history. The documentary 'Paris is Burning' captured instances of the fiercely outrageous ball culture in NYC in the mid-to-late 1980s. One of the figures memorialised on film was a drag queen named Venus from the house of Xtravaganza, the city's first Latino drag house. In his debut novel “The House of Impossible Beauties”, Joseph Cassara fictionally recreates Venus' story as well as tales about some of the other queens who were central to this drag family. It sympathetically follows the way these marginalized individuals were often ostracised by their families, but found sisterhood and support from fellow queens. Together they created and defined a sub-culture all their own. There are many moments of high drama and camp fun, but Cassara also emphasizes the hard gritty reality of their lives which involved prostitution, habitual drug use and AIDS. The novel skilfully invokes the aesthetic and feel of the era with a language and dialogue heavily inflected with Spanish phrases and drag lingo that totally draws the reader into this bygone world.

Part of the motivation behind creating the Xtravaganza drag house was that queer Hispanic individuals didn't feel like they could belong in the other drag houses at the time. A character named Hector notes in letter to a choreographer he admires “someone told me that you can’t join if you’re not black. I thought, Well, gee, I’m not black – but I certainly ain’t white. Especially if I’m talking Spanish, all the white people in Manhattan look at me like I might as well be black.” It's dismaying how a lot of queer culture that often satirizes and separates itself from mainstream straight culture still carries many reactionary prejudices within it. So some individuals within these drag houses exhibit signs of racial segregation, sexism and homophobia. As a result, Hector and drag queen Angel dream up and form a Latino drag house all of their own. The novel charts sections of this House's history from the early 80s to the early 90s.

Venus Xtravaganza in 'Paris is Burning'

Venus Xtravaganza in 'Paris is Burning'

Cassara's style of storytelling is somewhat choppy in how it portrays scenes from a particular time period, often introducing readers to new characters and then tunnelling back to give his characters' backstories. Significant scenes or events are often left out and only referred to and this usually strengthens the impact of the tale. For instance, one character's death from AIDS is only brought up in dialogue and the immediate aftermath of the death is shown in very brief flashes. It would have been entirely unnecessary to show the full journey of this character's death from diagnosis to the funeral. His death is felt all the more keenly because it's only a part of a tapestry of loss from this time period. The persistent and pernicious presence of the disease in the characters' lives is handled very well as is the near universal rejection the queens feel by their families (with the notable exceptions of Angel's supportive brother and Juanito's grandmother who indulges his penchant for dressing up.) However, it feels like there are one too many backstories of how male characters are rejected by their families because of their femininity. Instead, it would have been good if there were more scenes showing the drag balls themselves as there is only one instance of a competition portrayed in the narrative despite multiple trophies that adorn the shelves of the House of Xtravaganza.

This novel is a striking tribute to those who endeavour to create and inhabit beauty as a way of transcending the gruelling reality of life. It would have been easy to make it about over-the-top fabulousness and girrrlish ki ki. I admire how Cassara portrays the real dangers and precariousness of these drag queens' lives and pays tribute to their strength and artistry, but also acknowledges their occasional flaws and superficiality. There are many instances of humour from the challenges of wearing a snake as an accessory to how one queen notes that “The biggest shame in the whole world was that coke wasn’t a vegetable.” But, although the novel is true to life in representing how the majority of these queens' hard lives came to bleak ends, the narrative sometimes gets bogged down in the harshness of their persistent suffering in a way that felt very reminiscent of Yanagihara's “A Little Life”. It's difficult to imagine how lives marked by such tragedy could be told otherwise, yet I was left longing for some more levity towards the end. Nevertheless, it's an enthralling experience following these queens' powerful stories and I love how Cassara has dynamically brought them to life.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoseph Cassara
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This gripping novel made me immediately flip back to the beginning to search for details I might have missed. I also felt compelled to search for other people’s opinions online to try to figure out what happened. “Fever Dream” is an incredibly creepy and mesmerising story about a woman named Amanda confined in a rural hospital having a tense conversation with her neighbour’s son David. She discusses with him her arrival at a holiday home with her daughter Nina (her husband is due to arrive later) and events involving David’s mother Carla. At first I found this to be quite a disorientating story because it’s largely composed of dialogue taking place in two distinct time periods, but once I had a good handle on the characters I felt completely wrapped in the mystery. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but I knew a lot was at stake as David continuously prompts Amanda to skip over parts of the story that are “not important.” Time is limited because he tells Amanda that her life is drawing to a close.

Reading “Fever Dream” felt like the experience of watching a Guillermo del Toro film where reality is slightly distorted as something very sinister is happening just beneath the surface of all the events taking place. We’re in that blurry territory that borders the fantastical and the psychologically disturbed. In this way, the novel accurately recreates the experience of being in a feverish state of mind. There are horses that go missing, a boy that turns into a monster, dead ducks, a disease that’s “like worms” and a poison that permeates the environment. Because of Amanda’s hazy sense of consciousness and uncertain memory, this story has an infectious hallucinatory effect that left me highly unsettled and grasping for understanding.

One of the prevailing themes of the novel is the degree to which we’re connected to the people we love the most. Amanda frequently expresses concern throughout the story that she wants to keep her daughter Nina within “rescue distance,” which is another way of saying within the bounds of her protective reach. She envisions it like an invisible rope connecting them and if Nina roams too far away this virtual rope will snap. This accurately reflects the way the people we love inhabit our consciousness – something which causes us happiness but also anxiety because we fear for their safety. In her debilitated state in the hospital, Amanda repeatedly expresses concern for the whereabouts of Nina. David assures her that this isn’t important, but of course for Amanda her daughter’s safety is the most important thing. The way in which children are individuals we alternately fear and fear for reminded me of the similarly gothic novel “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert. It could be that David is reminding Amanda that in the end we are quintessentially alone or he could be a sinister force compelling Amanda to break her connection with the person she cares for the most.

The tension over whether Amanda should trust David or his mother Carla is so interesting. Carla is mistrustful of her son, yet she seems to be the one preventing Amanda from leaving this uneasy environment when she becomes alarmed. Schweblin drops in tantalizing imagery such as the way Carla wears a gold bikini or the ominous dampness which covers Nina’s clothes which Amanda mistakenly assumes is dew from the grass. These are details which feel intensely vivid, yet their meaning is uncertain. The story needles the reader’s sub-conscious playing upon our unexpressed fears and anxieties in a way that simulates how we are helpless participants within a nightmare. For such a short novel “Fever Dream” makes an incredibly compelling and satisfying puzzle.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It was fortuitous that the book I ended up reading during my short holiday this past weekend was Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”. Last night it won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I was also lucky enough to be invited to his publisher Oneworld’s Booker party. To see the jubilation for everyone who has worked on this novel watching Beatty being honoured was wonderful and I think it was unexpected for many people, including the publishers because they also published Marlon James’ novel which won the prize last year. It may have broken my winning streak for guessing the Booker winner, but “The Sellout” is an excellent choice for its wit, ingenuity and unfettered voice which creatively raises questions about race relations in America. 

The novel opens with its black narrator only known as Me being taken before the Supreme Court for owning a slave and trying to reinstate segregation in his neighbourhood – a place called Dickens which has been erased from the map. He recounts the story of his unusual life being raised by his tyrannical behavioural scientist father, living alongside a former actor named Hominy who pronounces himself to be his slave, his ill-fated love affair with bus driver Marpessa and his work growing the sweetest fruit/best cannabis on his own LA farm. After his father's death he also continues to help facilitate the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a black group that meet regularly within a donut shop to debate societal affairs. The story moves through a series of high-concept situations which outrageously play up stereotypes and explode the racial issues we normally tiptoe around in society.  

This feels like a very personal novel by an author who has grown frustrated with the way the politics of race relations has shaped everything about how we conceive of our own identities and how we communicate with each other. At one point the narrator states “in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of colour, like Proposition 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension, I hadn’t spoken a single word.” His opinions about this cultural and social environment come flooding out. This book is an explosive act by someone who wants to offer a wholly different point of view.

Hominy is an actor who is the last surviving member of The Little Rascals or Our Gang and spent his life playing stereotypical roles for black actors like waiters or servants. He's internalized his subservient roles so much that he craves to be a slave who is beaten: “I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play. A slave who just happens to be an actor. But being black ain’t method acting.” One of the challenging things this novel does is question how black identity develops, how much is this identity inherent to the person or is it reflecting notions that society presents. 

It's compelling and horrifying watching episodes of The Little Rascals and wondering how we should read what were meant to be entertaining funny vignettes. They make me so uncomfortable, but as with many dodgy representations of race it makes you wonder if they should be erased, seen in a social/historical context or rewritten. There are references to classic American literature throughout this novel and a man who rewrites these book from a black perspective. From this we also start to question how race is represented in films, television and literature today. In what way is racial identity sometimes used as a prop in story lines – where a bad guy might be lazily designated as such simply by being a Mexican – as frequently occurs in the show Breaking Bad.

I think something Beatty is asking us to do is look more clearly at what is being shown to us. He's questioning how much we've really moved on from outdated representations and how much social progression has really occurred. At one point he writes: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” It's really powerful how he presents this story which occurs in a kind of murky present that can question history because it's not strictly speaking a part of it. The real and surreal playfully blend together to create an entirely different picture of our society.

While I found all this really clever and it raised a lot of interesting ideas, I felt one of the downsides of this novel is that it's more concept than story. I could feel the author's anger, frustration and biting sense of humour. But these emotions didn't come organically from within the characters acting out a plot. The story is driven by artfully composed situations which are entertaining and fascinating to read about, but weren't enough to create a dramatic suspense to draw me into the heart of the tale. Instead I simply felt compelled by the range of references and challenging points of view the author put across. I think this is a really interesting choice to win the Booker prize, but I personally don't feel as emotionally attached to it as I did reading Levy's “Hot Milk” or Thien's “Don't Say We Have Nothing”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPaul Beatty
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Some books leave you reeling in astonishment and “A Brief History of Seven Killings” certainly does that. I feel like I've been startled awake and can still hear the multiplicity of voices contained in this novel. Marlon James creates several distinct narrators to tell the story surrounding an assault upon Bob Marley’s house on December 3, 1976 by unknown gunmen who attacked Marley, his wife, manager and band mates which left them seriously injured. This mysterious incident occurred two days before he was due to sing in a concert which was meant to inspire peace between two warring Jamaican political groups. Nevertheless, Marley performed at the concert as scheduled. This novel is told from the point of view of dons (or territorial/gang leaders), CIA agents, a journalist, gang members, a woman trying to escape Jamaica, a hit man and a deceased politician. It spans a decade and a half from 1976 to 1991. It is specifically about the Singer and Jamaican politics, but it’s also a fantastic exploration of identity (national, racial, gender, sexual, spiritual). This is a book that challenges your assumptions about who you think you are and how you see other people.

Although Marley is central to the story we never get his voice. As such, the characters talk about him and (in some cases) directly to him, but we don’t hear his point of view. This is important because, as the novel progresses, it becomes about much more than the incident and extends its meaning into the larger culture. The author could very well be revealing his mission for this novel when a character states at one point: “there’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture than me asking him why he smokes ganja.” In this way, Marley is mythologized in a way similar to what Gabriel García Márquez does in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where the murdered man central to the story becomes so filled with all the characters’ opinions about him that he ceases to be a physical man and becomes more of a symbol. At the same time, I felt incredibly anxious for and sympathetic towards Marley’s plight as he was caught in an overwhelming web of scheming and ideological battles. He was extremely vulnerable as one man observes: “Once you climb to the peak of the mountain, the whole world can take a shot.”

As well as offering a wide range of perspectives on Marley, the novel also gives a fascinatingly complex understanding of race as viewed from the perspectives of multiple characters. There is the white journalist Alex Pierce who scoffs at white Americans who affect black sensibilities, but who can’t fully integrate into the society. Or the CIA man who observes that “Racism here is sour and sticky, but it goes down so smooth that you’re tempted to be racist with a Jamaican just to see if they would even get it.” Throughout the book there is an awareness of skin colour being a factor in social class depending on lightness or darkness. An enforcer and don, Josey Wales, states that “In Jamaica you have to make sure that you breed properly. Nice little light browning who not too dry up, so that your child will get good milk and have good hair.” These points of view bring to mind for me Chimamanda Adichie’s observation that race isn’t a genetic issue, but a social issue. There are conflicted levels of racism inherent to everyone’s point of view which are demonstrated by the way they interact with and think about others.

For a novel so dominated by a multiplicity of male perspectives, the female narrator Nina Burgess gives a refreshingly different take on women in this novel. She’s someone who I felt a tremendous level of sympathy with both for her yearnings and her need to escape her culture to create a new identity. Burgess exposes the sexism women must face in Jamaican society – how the threat of sexual violence is something which can go unreported and be overlooked by officials even if it is (as they may very well be the perpetrators.) It shows how fear of it can be a kind of torture: “I can’t imagine anything worse than waiting for a rape.” It’s shown how rape is used as another instrument of war and the quest for domination. Importantly, the novel also shows how stereotypes or expectations about the way women might be treated in Jamaica don’t always play out in the ways you’d expect in specific circumstances. Another female character who defies stereotypes is Griselda Blanco, a drug lord who is one of the toughest and most fearsome characters in the entire book.

At the same time, James gives a sympathetic understanding towards his male characters – even when they are ruthless killers. Many feel trapped by circumstance and cornered into taking certain actions based on what opportunities are available to them. Some experience a crisis of consciousness and develop or recess back into old habits of being. The character of Josey Wales meaningfully realizes that “When you come into the real truth about yourself, you realize that the only person equipped to handle it is you.” There aren’t avenues of support to encourage gang members out of the life they live. The horrific fact about the violence that many of the men engage with is that it is self-perpetuating and has no end: “The problem with proving something is that instead of leaving you alone people never stop giving new things to prove, harden things.” So the violence must escalate as the men feel they must maintain and protect their place within their social group.

Jamaica has a notoriously bad reputation for the way it treats its queer community. That rampant homophobia is reflected in this book where one of the most common insults casually doled out is “batty man.” This isn’t surprising and fully justified given that many of the voices are by macho tough men. What is surprising is that two of the voices (that of a complicated gang enforcer named Weeper and a dangerous hit man named John-John K) are men who actively have sex with other men. There is a level of acceptance for their actions by some gang members who acknowledge their different sexuality but overlook this fact because they don’t consider them “that” type of gay man. Equally there is a complex understanding of their own sexualities within each man’s narrative. They challenge stereotypes: “Don’t think the man getting fucked must be the bitch.” Bottoms can also be bad ass.

Watch Marlon James discuss his inspiration for writing this novel

In many ways, these two characters also hide their true natures as a means of surviving in their stridently heterosexual social groups. There is a level of self-consciousness where the men must “perform” a role and this reveals the fallible nature of our social identities. There is talk of male prostitutes being used and then killed to hide the shame of what happened. Only in New York City can Weeper establish a somewhat steady sexual relationship with another man on his own terms. Weeper and John-John K also have a fascinating dialogue about sexuality when they finally meet in a climactic scene which offers very different points of view rather than a singular outcast gay man’s voice. This is such a refreshing and challenging thing for a novel to do. It’s fascinating to consider how the author might also still be facing his own struggle with sexuality given that in the last sentence of the acknowledgements he warns his mother away from reading the fourth part of this novel which contains some very graphic gay sexual content.

It’s astounding to me a novel can encompass so many different voices and do so in a way that is entirely convincing, but also beautifully written. Some of the most lyrical writing is that of the deceased politician Sir Arthur Jennings who oversees the spanning interstices of time between sections. One of the most striking lines which I keep musing upon comes from the journalist looking upon the ghetto thinking “Beauty has infinite range but so does wretchedness…”  However, some of the most forceful, terrifying and hypnotically-written passages that flood your mind like a river are by the young gang members rapt in the heat of drug-fuelled violence. This novel builds voices in layers giving a complex understanding of our culture in a way that only a novel can. Interestingly, it uses multiple narrators to create a polyphonic perspective of a place and time surrounding a specific incident that's very similar to Ryan Gattis’ “All Involved”. I was also struck how one plot-line of the book sees a caregiver get attached to an older man who loses his short-term memories every day which is a story that is superficially similar to Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" which I read earlier this year. Of course, James' novel is very different from these books in content, but I think it's a positive thing when great books remind you of other great books.

It is commendable Marlon James engages with this period of Jamaican history and culture in such a complex and intelligent way. Perhaps he felt the need to answer his own challenge set by his character Tristan Phillips who suggests: “Maybe somebody should put all of this craziness together, because no Jamaican going do it. No Jamaican can do it, brother, either we too close or somebody going stop we.” This is a view of Jamaica that only this author could give, yet its meanings extend so far beyond the boundaries of that country and the individual voices it contains. It is a long read, but it becomes utterly mesmerizing. As an enticement to stick with it, you should know that the significance of this novel’s title and the killings it references isn’t revealed until near the end. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a novel I feel like I could go on and on about. I’ve only just touched on some of the fascinating themes and ideas this book brings up. It’s better if I just write you should definitely read it and end here.