I have to admit that I have struggled with this book. It covers a period of Jamaican history about which I am woefully ignorant, there is a lot of Jamaican or Rastafarian patois that I do not understand and it is written in a vernacular with sentence constructions that are hard to follow.
That said: I think it is marvellous that a Jamaican author has got on to the Man Booker Long List, a first time which is surprising since Jamaica is a commonwealth country and has a lively and respected literary tradition. Still here is the first and we should consider it.
The narrative covers a period of upheaval in Jamaica, from about 1976 to 1991. The first big event is the preparation for the Bob Marley Peace concert, but just before that takes place, there is an assassination attempt on the Singer. In this book, he is never named but it is abundantly clear who it is. In the first section, we get the lead up to the attempt, recruiting the shooters, getting the guns and quite a lot of background about the gangs operating in Kingston, their territory and also the political shenanigans going on at a different level. The second section deals with the assassination attempt itself, and then subsequent sections cover the aftermath. The sections are delivered in the voice of the characters (Papa-Lo, Josey Wales, Bam-Bam and Barry Diflorio etc), so cover the events that surround each character, they may run concurrently, back track or move forward – so an event that is concluded in a previous chapter may not yet have occurred in the next chapter because that character either did not take part, or hasn’t yet got there. Concentrate, Reader!!!
There is an invaluable list of characters, the names of the gangs, the dons and the enforcers and the detritus, the dregs of society who get the worst deal, and often the worst deaths. Most of the characters are male, though they do have wives or women who are not their wives and then there are the CIA operatives. This comes as no surprise, especially when there is clearly a suspicion at this time that Jamaica was about to turn Communist. How true this was is anybody’s guess – I am so ignorant that I had no idea it was even a possibility – but clearly if the threat was real then America would not want another off-shore island to turn Red and would be making sure that it didn’t – hence the CIA crawling about in plain sight.
The CIA (and possibly FBI) agents would all be white, as were most of the politicians – Gerald Manley features as a walk-on part for example. Then there are the descendants of the slaves who are obviously black – the “N-word” appears frequently, spelt with an ‘a’ in it, and also ‘f**k’ and the ‘c-word’, this is not shocking, one has got used to it but it is somewhat like reading a David Mamet playscript. Also there would be ‘native’ Jamaicans and quite a few mixed race descendants. I am still unclear as to the ancestry of most of the characters in this book, and whether it matters.
I would love to know the origins of words like bombocloth, r’asscloth, bloodcloth and others. It is not always easy to guess from the context, but you move swiftly on, they appear regularly and probably the exact derivation or meaning is not essential to the whole narrative.
As to the vernacular – the unfamiliarity with construction slows up the comprehension so you often have to read a whole paragraph again because somewhere along the lines you missed a crucial segue into a different place (or time or thought).
I look and think I can see her standing at the top of the gully, but is nothing, not even a tree. Cold breeze sweep down into the passage. I swear I could see it hanging above we for a second then dive down, though breeze don’t have no colour. That song jump out of the radio and dive down the gully too. Do it light. Do it through the night. Shadow. Me and Tony Pavarotti driving the car. No, me in the taxi with three man but none is Tony Pavarotti. No, Tony Pavarotti gone. No he right beside me. No he over there behind the three jury. We in McGregor Gully, and him right there. He looking in the dark, we not in a car. The Singer is right there, him and the manager. Talk, manager, say something boasty and out of turn so I know you still there. Me didn’t shoot the Singer, me shoot the wife, Leggo Beast still saying. Me feel like me was outside and just walk right back into a discussion which gone far from where it was when me leave. But me never go anywhere. Me is right here and up above the wind swooping up and down like a ghost and I can see it and I can’t see it and I wonder if me is the only one seeing it and not seeing it, the wind rising above the gully like spirit about to fly.
This is Papa-Lo, thinking and imagining the ‘trial’ of one of the gang men who supposedly try to assassinate the Singer. There is another trope, similar to this in the novel. If it is ‘your’ section and your character is describing events in which he/she took part, your dialogue continues right on, right through your own death. While this is very clever, it does take a bit of getting used to because of passages like the one quoted above – did it really happen?
The author, Marlon James, was born in Jamaica but lives in Minnesota. He has written two other novels John Crow’s Devil and The Book of the Night Women, both of which garnered awards and prizes.