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Marlon James wins Man Booker Prize for A Brief History Of Seven Killings

Published 13/10/2015

Marlon James was awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his book a
Marlon James was awarded the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his book a "A Brief History of Seven Killings" at a ceremony in London on October 13, 2015. James, 44, is the first Jamaican to win the prestigious annual literary prize in its 47-year history. (File photo) AFP/Getty Images

Marlon James' A Brief History Of Seven Killings, an epic re-telling of the attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley, has won the Man Booker Prize.

The book sees author James, 44, become the first Jamaican to win the coveted literary prize in its 47-year history.

The 686-page story includes large sections written in Jamaican patois, covers the attempted murder of the reggae singer in 1976 and the rise of the drug trade on the island.

It is set in Kingston, Jamaica, and has over 75 characters, voices and witnesses including from FBI and CIA agents to killers, ghosts, beauty queens and Keith Richards's drug dealer.

The judges unanimously picked the book as the winner after "more than one but less than two hours of deliberation," according to Michael Wood, chairman of the judging panel.

The book is loaded with Jamaican patois - including a whole chapter - bad language and a testing subject matter, but Mr Wood, urged people to read it, even though he might not give it to his own mother to read.

He said: "I think there is a kind of excitement right from the beginning. I think (James) has thought 'I am not trying to rub people's noses in difficult terms, I am trying to get them to think about things that are actually out there'.

"'I am going to give them ways in and I am going to give them voices they can listen to'. A lot of it is very very funny and a lot of it is very human.

"It is not an easy read. It is a big book. There is some tough stuff and there is a lot of swearing but it is not a difficult book to approach. It is not a difficult book to get into."

The New York Times described the book as "like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner ... epic in every sense of that word".

Mr Wood said the book was about social conditions.

He joked that his mother probably would not have got past "the first few pages on the basis of the swearing".

James was born in Kingston, Jamaica and currently lives in Minneapolis, and this is his third novel.

James refers to Marley as The Singer throughout.

James was presented with a trophy by the Duchess of Cornwall at a glittering ceremony at the Guildhall in central London.

He also received the £50,000 cheque, gets a designer bound edition of his book and a further £2,500 for being shortlisted.

The judges started off with 156 books before whittling it down to a shortlist of six finalists.

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, who had been the bookmakers' hot favourite, had made the final cut along with fellow American, Anne Tyler for A Spool Of Blue Thread.

Sunjeev Sahota's The Year Of The Runaways was also a finalist along with British compatriot Tom McCarthy for Satin Island and Nigeria's Chigozie Obioma for The Fishermen.

This is the second year the prize has been open to writers of any nationality writing in English and published in the UK having previously been restricted to the UK and Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe.

The prize comes with the added fillip of a guaranteed boost to sales, with last year's winner, The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan, selling almost 800,000 copies worldwide.

Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles bookshops, described it as " a visceral and uncompromising novel that sheds a stark light on a profoundly disturbing chapter of Jamaica's history".

He said: "It's also an ingeniously structured feat of storytelling that draws the reader in with its eye-catching use of language. For booksellers, it's truly heartening to see such ambition and originality recognised and rewarded, and readers have already been embracing it with great enthusiasm."

Spotlight on Marlon James

Marlon James is the first Jamaican author to win The Man Booker Prize.

He took the coveted award with his third novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, which creates a fictional history of the attempted murder of Bob Marley in 1976.

James, 44, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, teaches creative writing in Minnesota in the United States.

This book takes the attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley as the starting point for an examination of organised crime and political corruption on the Caribbean island.

It is set just weeks before the general election and two days before Marley was set to play the Smile Jamaica concert to ease political tensions.

A seven-strong gang storms Marley's home with machine guns, but the singer survives and goes on to play at the free concert.

He leaves Jamaica the next day and does not return for two years.

James's first novel - John Crow's Devil - was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It was also a New York Editor's Choice.

His second novel - The Book of Night Women - won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Brief History Of Seven Killings: critics divided

Running at 700 pages, and with large sections written in Jamaican patois, A Brief History Of Seven Killings - the re-telling of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, referred to in the book as The Singer - was always going to be a struggle for some readers.

Its author Marlon James was the first Jamaican-born writer to be short-listed for the Booker Prize, although the novel was immediately installed as one of the also-rans by several bookmakers.

That it was a divisive offering was reflected by some of the reviews. Here is a sample of what the critics said at the time of the book's release:

  • "His (James's) decision to fictionalise the names of people and places is probably a mistake ... It is odd, too, that while James renames everything, he nevertheless follows the facts quite faithfully. As a result, the novel is less politically charged than it might have been ... A vivid novel that deserves all the praise it has already received" - Telegraph
  • "A Brief History, however, is sometimes more impressive than it is easily enjoyable - a difficult book with a stop-start structure that doesn't quite sweep you up in the way the single narrative voices of the previous novels did" - Guardian
  • "This is a book the energy, intelligence and intellectual range of which demands and rewards attention ... It showcases the extraordinary capabilities of a writer whose importance can scarcely be questioned, even if his mode of address will exclude some" - Independent
  • "Epic, immersive, acutely observed and deeply moving, it's worth every long hour it demands of the reader" - Huffington Post
  • "Though brilliant as a literary accomplishment, James's work is frequently hard going in reading terms, given the outsized stew of players and motives and the hyped-up prose that conveys it all. At times he risks coming across as overly indulgent of his penchant for maximalist effects. But, in giving us the fullest sense of this world, it proves to be a risk worth running" - New Statesman
  • "Spoof, nightmare, blood bath, poem, A Brief History Of Seven Killings eventually takes on a mesmerising power. It makes its own kind of music, not like Marley's, but like the tumult he couldn't stop" - New York Times.

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