Bob Marley’s story has been told a million times. Often brilliantly. With a biography like Catch a Fire out there, and a documentary as good as Marley, there seems little reason to search out more material that relates directly to the leading light of reggae music. This seems to have been apparent to Marlon James. Although the presence of Bob Marley pulses throughout the pages of this near 700 page epic, he is never actually named. He is known only as The Singer. Instead, we get the stories of a whole host of characters who were directly affected by The Singer, and, in particular, one event that played a major part in creating his legend.
In 1976, the night before he was due to play the free Smile Jamaica concert, gunmen broke into his Kingston home and attempted to assassinate Marley, his wife, and their entourage. Despite being shot in the chest, Marley left hospital the next day, got on stage, and sang the set he had been planning from the very beginning. Photographs of him on stage that night are among the most iconic in the history of music.
It’s a well told tale. Newsworthy across the globe, it has been covered excessively in print and film. But never in the way that Marlon James has approached it. Here we have the intermingled stories of the gunmen who plotted to kill Marley, the journalists who wanted to cover the story, the witnesses who waited outside Marley’s home on that deadly night, the CIA agents who investigated and were maybe involved in the incident, and many more besides. This is a story about the ripple caused by Marley and the assassination attempt, and the way these things came to define Jamaica for decades.
Spreading from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, this novel tracks the lives and deaths of the gunmen, spending far more time on their often brutal deaths than it ever does on the sad passing of the singer at the heart of the story. The closing section is so brutal, and so hard to put down, that it’s 100 plus pages will pass in what seems like minutes.
But that isn’t always the case. With so many stories to tell, there is sometimes a sense that novel’s incredible ambition is not fully matched in its achievement. Maybe some of the stories could’ve been cut. Maybe there are a few occasions where the stop-start nature of the structure makes the novel more ambitious that enjoyable. But that will depend largely on the reader. Anyone expecting a simple summary of what happened to their favourite reggae singer on his most famous night is likely to be disappointed. Anyone who wants a sprawling and thorough explanation of what that night meant for Jamaica and the world is unlikely to find a better source.
Any Cop?: It will undoubtedly split audiences. It isn’t always an easy and accessible read. In many ways, it is the kind of novel that David Peace would have written if he was born in Kingston rather than Leeds. And we all know how Peace is equally admired and abhorred. A Brief History of Seven Killings, though, tells an important and interesting story from a completely original angle. Brief, it isn’t. But it’s definitely brilliant.