A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Marlon James

Marlon James was born to an upper middle class family in Kingston. His mother was a police officer and detective, and his father a lawyer. He was a child when Bob Marley (“the Singer”) was shot, and remembers the occasion as one of the only times in his life when his parents seemed truly frightened. James graduated with a BA from the University of the West Indies in 1991 and later gained an MFA from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006. In between this time James immigrated from Jamaica to the United States, partly due to the threat of homophobic violence, and also because of the limited professional and economic opportunities available in his home country. James’ first novel, John Crow’s Delight, was published in 2005; his second, The Book of Night Women, in 2009. The Book of Night Women garnered positive reviews and several awards, but this was dwarfed by the success of A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was awarded the 2015 Man Booker prize (alongside other awards) and is set to be adapted for the screen by HBO. James lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches literature and creative writing at Macalester College. 
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Historical Context of A Brief History of Seven Killings

The novel is set against the background of the Cold War, an extended period of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that began at the end of the Second World War and ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 (the year in which the novel ends). The US and USSR did not engage in direct conflict during this period, but the Cold War played out through proxy wars in other nations, as well as extended campaigns of espionage and propaganda. Jamaica, which was an ally of the United States, became a site of US attention following the election as Prime Minister of the People’s National Party politician Michael Manley, who self-identified as a socialist. The US expressed concerns that Jamaica might become a communist nation and ally of the Soviet Union like neighboring Cuba, and deployed a number of CIA operatives in the country in order to prevent this from taking place. Other important political events in the novel include the Jamaican general elections of 1976 and 1980, both of which involved a significant amount of turmoil and violence in the country. The 1970s also saw an enormous rise in popularity of reggae music and the Rastafari religion, fueled by Bob Marley (who is referred to in the novel as “the Singer”). Perhaps the single most important historical event in the novel is the shooting at Marley’s house in 1976, a murder attempt that Marley, and everyone else targeted, somewhat miraculously survived. Marley died of cancer in the toe in 1981, another important event in the novel. Finally, the novel is also set against the background of the explosion of cocaine use beginning in the 1970s, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the subsequent War on Drugs. Although the latter does not play a major role in the novel, Josey Wales’ eventual imprisonment at the end of the narrative indicates a shift in the strictness with which drug traffickers were targeted as a result of US anti-drug initiatives.

Other Books Related to A Brief History of Seven Killings

In choosing to present the novel through multiple different narrative perspectives, James took inspiration from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel in which 15 different narrators tell the story of a woman’s death. James was also inspired by Gay Talese’s famous essay “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” a profile that emerged out of Talese’s inability to interview Sinatra himself. Instead, Talese chose to observe and write about the people surrounding Sinatra in order to build a composite image of the singer; James employs a similar technique in A Brief History of Seven Killings, albeit with the added layer of fictional invention. In representing both characters who are alive and those who haunt and observe the world from the afterlife, Seven Killings is similar to novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Key Facts about A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Full Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Where Written: Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • When Published: 2014
  • Literary Period: 21st century Caribbean-American Fiction
  • Genre: Crime epic, with influences of New Journalism
  • Setting: Mainly Kingston, Jamaica, and New York City, 1976-1991
  • Climax: The shooting at the Singer’s house
  • Antagonist: Josey Wales
  • Point of View: 14 different first-person narrators

Extra Credit for A Brief History of Seven Killings

Fine trimming. The novel originally had another 10,000 words, which––against his editor’s wishes––James insisted on cutting.

Better safe than sorry. Like Alex Pierce, the journalist character who writes a series of essays entitled “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” James did not publish Seven Killings until all the major historical figures on which the novel’s characters are based were dead.