Marlon James and his book got a lot of attention after it won the Man Booker. I think I heard more about James and his struggles to get this amazing book published than I heard about the book itself. It wasn’t until my book group a couple months ago that I heard any reviews of the actual book. A couple people said they couldn’t put it down and that intrigued me enough to buy it on the spot.
Totally worth it.
Everything everyone said about this book is true. It is a gripping page-turner that I found hard to put down, but I’m not sure why. It’s not that it’s a particularly action-packed book (although there is certainly plenty of action). What really hooked me was the characters and the way the story was told. Each chapter is narrated by a different character and I loved the feeling that I was sitting down with these characters as they told me their stories.
It’s hard for me to say exactly what this book is about. It focuses largely on gang life in Jamaica, rigged elections, and the real life assassination attempt on Bob Marley, but Marley is never named. He is only ever referred to as “the Singer” and the reader never gets to hear anything he says. Everything we know about him is told to us from other characters, but he’s at the center of everything that’s happening.
Every character talks about the assassination attempt, the events leading up to it, and what happened afterwards. After achieving success in America, the Singer has decided to host a benefit concert in Jamaica, but in a nation that’s still very much at war with itself, a benefit concert isn’t good enough without knowing who, exactly, will reap the benefits. The Singer has tried to bring the two major political parties together and get them to find some common ground. Ironically, that isn’t achieved until after the assassination attempt and the Singer leaves the country.
At this point, the book isn’t even half over, but the leaders of the two rival gangs of Kingston agree to a truce. It doesn’t last long because there’s no money to be made from peace, so there’s always someone looking to fuck it up. One of the gang leaders is killed and that puts an end to the truce.
In a sense it must have been inevitable, but it’s always sad when peace dies. What really got me was much later in the book when some of the characters talk about what that truce did for them: it gave them hope. This book makes you realize that, in a poverty-stricken country with little choice other than resort to drugs and violence, people want more. The truce gave hope to people who had learned to fear hope because it only ever leads to disappointment, which makes the failure of the truce that much more heart wrenching.
Given the extremely poor and violent world James introduces the reader to, it’s no wonder people are constantly trying to leave. This is probably most exemplified by the character of Nina Burgess, who goes by various names throughout the book in order to hide from the gunman who shoved a gun in her face right after having shot the Singer. Nina is convinced the gunman is looking for her, but her escape is just one of many.
At the beginning of the book we’re told there are people literally lining up to get visas to get out of the country, mostly to America, but the gangs follow them to America. Josey Wales, the leader of one of the gangs, expands his drug trafficking to NYC and much of the violence and gang life follows him and his drugs to America.
At the end of the book, Nina is finally free when she hears Josey was killed in jail.
What did you guys read this week? Any other prize winners I should know about? Let me know in the comments.