Sprawling novel tells the story of Bob Marley’s would-be killers

“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James (Riverhead, 688 pages, $28.95)

Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” should win some kind of award for ironic untruth-telling in titling. It is indeed a novel, though a historical one based on real events. At nearly 700 dense pages, often written in Jamaican patois, it’s anything but brief. And the corpses quickly add up to many more than seven.

One body not added to the count, at least not at the time intended by his would-be assassins, was that of Bob Marley. James’ epic, multifaceted story revolves around the Rasta reggae superstar and the failed assassination attempt in December 1976, just two days before he planned to play – and, remarkably, did – a Smile Jamaica concert in Kingston meant to ease political tensions in the island nation.

Those tensions run through every page of “Seven Killings,” a sprawling saga that carries the story of Marley’s would-be killers to Miami and New York in the early 1990s and dazzlingly employs more than a dozen narrators who tell their own versions of events.

Like a capacious 19th-century novel crossed with a paranoid Don DeLillo conspiracy-theory thriller, the book is a low-burning spliff that begins with a four-page list of 76 characters. The reader needs to refer to it frequently.

After title-page quotes from Bonnie Raitt (“Gonna tell the truth about it / Honey, that’s the hardest part”) and a cryptic Jamaican proverb (“If it no go so, it go near so”), “Seven Killings” begins in the voice of politician Sir Arthur George Jennings, who moves through the story like a ghost – because that’s exactly what he is.

As the book begins, Jamaica is wracked by drug-fueled gun battles among the supporters of the left-leaning People’s National Party, led by Prime Minister Michael Manley, and the center-right Jamaican Labor Party of former music industry executive (and later prime minister) Edward Seaga. The book examines CIA efforts to destabilize Manley’s government, seen as drifting close to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

James grew up in Jamaica and teaches in Minnesota. “Seven Killings” is his third and most ambitious novel. He’s skilled at weaving pop culture into his narrative.

Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer