“How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand around and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it.
We’ve got to fulfil the book.”
Redemption Song, 1980
On 3 December 1976, two days before he was to appear at a free concert organised by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Bob Marley was shot at his home in Kingston by an unknown gunman.
This act is at the heart of Marlon James’ Booker Prize winner novel, a violent story of gangland rivalry, police corruption, CIA interference, and international drug running.
The scope is ambitious. The action unfolds over fifteen years in various locations: Kingston, Miami, New York And it has a myriad of narrators: gangland “dons”, teenage gunmen, a music journalist, a groupie, CIA operatives – even the ghost of a dead politician, who acts as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the 20th century tragedy.
James somehow manages to write all of them into complex, fully drawn characters, each with their own desires and contradictions. I found myself caring about violent killers: the PLP “don” Papa Lo, his successor Josey Wales, druggy, gay Weeper. Only “The Singer” – Marley is never mentioned by name – remains an elusive, totemic figure.
The title is a misnomer because there is nothing “brief” about this book – my One World paperback copy is a sprawling 686 pages long – and there were moments when I felt it would have benefited from slightly more vigorous editing. The character list at the front is indispensable and I needed to refer to it a lot, especially to begin with (which is why I ditched the kindle version). That said, it more than repays the effort to see it through to the end.
**** One of the best books I’ve read this year.