Marlon James became the first Jamaican author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize when his searing literary crime novel A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS was announced as the surprise winner in London earlier today (NZT).
James's outstanding novel was inspired by the attempted assassination of the legendary singer Bob Marley in the 1970s. Spanning three decades, the novel uses the true story of the attempt on the life of the reggae star to explore the turbulent world of Jamaican gangs and politics. Not your typical Booker winner, A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS has been described as "full of violence and swearing". At almost 700 pages, the epic tale often switches perspectives, narrators, and voices, which "went from Jamaican slang to Biblical heights", said Michael Wood, Chair of Judges.
While the win came as a surprise to some observers, it has pleased and invigorated many in the books world. Wood called A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS the most exciting book on the shortlist, and said it took the judges less than two hours this year to unanimously agree on it as the winner.
It is very interesting to see the Man Booker Prize embrace such and exciting and violent tale that veers deeply into 'crime novel' territory. While Eleanor Catton won two years ago for a book she herself called an 'historical, astrological murder mystery', in general the Booker Prize has generally eschewed anything that leaned towards 'genre fiction', and A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS is definitely a crime novel. Full of violence and murder and gangs and exploring the issues of crime and its effect on those involved, A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS may be literary in style, but it is without doubt crime in nature.
Acclaimed British novelist Stav Sherez, who has been vociferously singing the praises of A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS on Twitter in recent weeks, says "it is more of a crime novel than most things that are sold as crime novels", with crime not being tangential, as in Catton's THE LUMINARIES, but "at the core of every character, plot line, theme, and scene".
Judging Chair Wood notes that A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS is not the typical Booker winner, stating that the content might be too much for some readers. "Someone said to me they like to give Booker winners to their mother to read, but this might be a little difficult."
However, the inclusion of such an exciting and vivid novel on the Booker shortlist, and now its win, appears to have pleased many in the books world. On BBC.co.uk, Foyles bookshop web editor Jonathan Ruppin said: "It's a visceral and uncompromising novel that sheds a stark light on a profoundly disturbing chapter of Jamaica's history, but it's also an ingeniously structured feat of storytelling that draws the reader in with its eye-catching use of language. For booksellers, it's truly heartening to see such ambition and originality recognised and rewarded, and readers have already been embracing it with great enthusiasm."
The 44-year-old James said he was stunned to win, and be the first Jamaican to receive the accolade. "This is so ridiculous, I think I'm going to wake up tomorrow and it didn't happen," he said. "Jamaica has a really rich literary tradition. It's kind of surreal being the first. I really hope I'm not the last, and I don't think I will be, because there is this real spunky creativity that's happening.
In The Telegraph, Tim Martin notes that James, who teaches creative writing in Minnesota, "cites influences as diverse as Greek tragedy, William Faulkner, the LA crime novelist James Ellroy, Shakespeare, Batman and the X-Men" and that the author is also in the process of adapting A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS into an HBO television series. James's tale, says Martin:
"seems in every way the obvious victory for people who like novels. It’s a vast, ambitious burning mansion of a book, designed to reflect all the languages of its teeming island and the chambers of the human heart. It’s irreverent, difficult, funny, argumentative, sometimes horribly violent and very often pleased with itself. Following Ellroy, it involves itself deeply in the intricate plotlines of the crime genre. Following Faulkner, it beguiles the reader with a variety of narrative set-ups and registers. Some of it is in verse. Some of it is in dialogue, without stage directions. Much of it takes the form of stream-of-consciousness recollection, often in various forms of Jamaican patois and dialect."
Read Martin's full appraisal of the book as a very worth winner here.
It is fantastic to see the Booker Prize broadening its outlook and embracing a more diverse winner. Although you could legitimately call A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLING an historical novel - as some have - and so it continues the recent Booker preference for such tales, it is significantly different to the likes of Hilary Mantel, Richard Flanagan, and Eleanor Catton - much more contemporary, much more visceral. While still being stylish, inventive, and challenging readers in a literary as well as storytelling sense.
So overall, it's a superb and exciting day for the books world.