A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
I’m about to do something I swore I wouldn’t ever do. So to past me, I must apologise.
However, to present me, future me and to you, whoever you are that happens to be reading this, I won’t apologise, because I have something to say.
I’m about to review a book that I only read forty pages or so of.
I know what you’re thinking. That was either a completely life changing forty pages, or… they were a bit shit.
I’ll admit to being a bit biased before I (attempted to) read A Brief History of Seven Killings, for two reasons, both of which are A Little Life.
Now, even I’m starting to get bored with how much I bang on about A Little Life so I’m going to try and soon write a blog that doesn’t reference it, but here the reference is relevant.
It was indirectly recommended to me on twitter by someone claiming it to be better than A Little Life, and it also beat the Hanya Yanagihara tome to this year’s Booker Prize (which was not a huge surprise since the favourite never wins).
I felt obliged to give it a go, and I was hooked by the premise of multiple characters crossing oceans and years to tell the story.
My first issue was a small one – the paper of the pages was not of great quality. Thin pages, mean hard to turn pages and I kept skipping pages without realising it.
However, the reason I didn’t realise I was skipping pages was because the language used in the book was so hard for to follow, told in many places in the dialect of the character speaking.
Jamaican Patois is not something I’m hugely familiar with, it’s not something that crops up all that regularly in deepest Wiltshire, and so I found it hard to inhabit the mindset of the characters. It left me detached and uncaring.
What it did make me realise however, is how alienating most fiction can be to ethnic minorities. Most things are written in a formal English, one that most people don’t speak on a day-to-day basis, but is close enough to traditional spoken English that it is accessible.
I wonder how easy someone who regularly speaks Patois would find it to inhabit the characters of A Little Life or A Place Called Winter. Perhaps the limitation is mine and mine alone and it wouldn’t be a problem.
There’s an interesting study to be done here on ethnicity and reading habits, and it’s probably one that already exists if I cared enough to seek it out. But it strikes me as suddenly very obvious why there are some cultures where literacy is low – they’re under-represented in fiction, the fun part of being able to read.
I did find that if I read the passages aloud (in a very bad attempt at a Jamaican accent) there was a wonderful lyrical, almost poetic quality to the writing. This isn’t a book that was written, it was carefully crafted, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to listen to my own voice for nearly seven hundred pages.
From what I read, it certainly deserved to win the Booker Prize (a prize that is traditionally given to books that most people struggle to get into) and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t struggle with dialects.
I, however, will seek out an audio version so that I can listen to someone much better at reading out loud tell me the tale.