You may recall last year when I posed a mini challenge to readers to tackle the short list for the Man Booker Prize before the prize was announced. This year, when the long list came out in September, I thought I’d do that again, but life got in the way of reading and I realized I’d never get through those books even if I stopped doing everything I should be doing and devoted myself 24 hours a day to reading. I’ll wait for the short list, I said.
The short list came out and I quickly reserved as many of the books as I could at the library, but when they came, I knew I was tilting at windmills. Real life. Sigh.
So here were the finalists: “The Year of Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota (I couldn’t find this); “A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler; “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James (couldn’t find the book, but I checked out the audiobook: 26 hours!); “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (another huge book); “The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma (which I started, then misplaced, then had to take back to the library and will probably check out again because I liked what I read); and “Satin Island” by Tom McCarthy.
I returned all the books I was able to get when I realized I had bitten off more than I could chew. I just knew that some other book nerd was out there waiting for them so he or she could read them before the award was announced. I kept “A Brief History” because I had just finished something else and needed entertainment on my commute.
First off, I’m glad I listened to it and didn’t read it. The performances—there were several readers, as there are several narrators—were strong and compelling, even when the story dragged. They made music of the prose, bringing to life the Jamaican dialect that makes up most of the novel. I would have lost much of the charm and humor of the novel by reading it. That said, the novel is a brilliant, silly, bizarre, sad, shocking, confusing and uplifting. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed it necessarily, so it was with great relief when—20-some hours into the audiobook—it won the prize.
The novel—and at 704 pages, there’s nothing brief about it—does nothing less than tell the history of Jamaica and its people since the country’s post-colonial troubles in the 1970s. The first part of the novel fictionalizes a real event: The attempted assassination of reggae singer Bob Marley (though he’s only ever called “The Singer” in the book). It was part of an effort (by the U.S. government, James posits and which is supported by whispers and theories over the last 40 years) to destabilize the country so it would stay friendly to the United States. I may have the politics wrong, but that’s how I understood it, and knowing that helped me sort out the players, none of whom—with the possible exception of one woman caught in all the turmoil—is a true protagonist.
The second part of the book shows the aftermath of the incident and the lengths to which the street criminals hired to carry out the killing go to cover their tracks, even 20 years later in the United States. The book is violent—there are many, many more than seven killings—and hilariously (or ridiculously, I can’t quite decide) profane. Here’s an example right from the beginning. A man is recalling a fight from his childhood between his prostitute mother, and his father: “He grab a broomstick and he beat her from head to foot from front to back and she screaming until she whelping and then moaning and he say you want big cocky, make me give you big cocky you fucking pussycloth whoring bitch.” This is relatively mild, considering all that comes afterward. These characters swear so much, the words stopped registering, though an occasional creative combination had me laughing. Buried in their f-bombs and c-words and understood-only-by-Jamaicans curses (for instance: “bombocloth,” used as an adjective the way “motherfucking” would be used), however, are brilliant perfectly honed insights and insults.
- “Everything this guy does just screams ‘little penis,'” says one reporter about another.
- “No man in the ghetto have a grandfather,” says a man who knows several reasons why that is.
- “There’s just so much sex you can have with a man who doesn’t use deodorant,” says a woman who had sex with The Rastafarian Singer.
- “He loves to hold a gun, but he does not know where to shoot,” says one thug about another.
Although everyone in the book is a bad, bad, person, we have a light in Nina Burgess, the groupie who, sadly and wrongly, believes she was so good in bed The Singer will give her a new life. A witness to the killing, she spends nearly half the book, and half her life, under other names, hiding her history, terrified. Her redemption (maybe?) comes at last, and it’s sweet and satisfying.
The biggest fault with the book is that James tries to do too much. He knows this, though, and I give him credit for acknowledging that in a clever way: A reporter is writing a book about the assassination attempt and its aftermath and he’s told “That’s too much for one book.” It really is; most notably in a tangent about a hitman falling in love for the first time, which feels tacked on to the later part of the book. It could have and probably should have been its own work.
This is a book that takes commitment, hard work and a lot of time. Was it worth it? Even a couple of months after finishing it, I’m not sure.
That said, of the books I’ve read nominated for this year’s prize, it is far and away the most ambitious, most surprising and most daring. Perhaps that’s why it was this year’s winner.
In Part 2: A couple also-rans.