From the Ghosts’ Point of View (Ploughshares blog)

My essay, “From the Ghosts’ Point of View: A Brief History of Seven Killings” is now available on the Ploughshares blog. Thanks for reading! Related: the featured image on this blog post comes from David Burnett’s gorgeous photo essay found here, from the same era during which the events in A Brief History of Seven Killings take place.

In a book that promises by its very title and opening lines that many characters will be expected to die, the author has to do some coaxing to convince readers that they can invest emotionally in the story. Marlon James achieves this in A Brief History of Seven Killings by breaking the sound barrier of the grave. Readers often don’t know whether a character is still alive or dead until after the character has already been talking for a while. That very open-endedness makes it possible to empathize with these characters even after the (more than) seven promised killings take place.

Marlon James is unafraid to confront death from the first page onward and then invite readers to care anyway. Clues to practically every death in the 686-page book appear in those first few pages: “fifty-six bullets,” “a burned cockroach,” a scream that “stops right at the gate of his teeth.” In sharing this, I’m giving away nothing that James himself doesn’t already give away. Reader, you’ve been warned. But, reader, don’t shy away. This is a story with heart.

From the moment the first narrator, Sir Arthur Jennings, announces in his opening lines that ghosts “never stop talking” and that “when you’re dead speech is nothing but tangents and detours,” readers cannot be certain they are listening to someone alive or dead. The readers figuratively take the role of the living who “sometimes hear” the dead speaking when they are half-awake or near death themselves. Continue reading…

Since reading A Brief History of Seven Killings earlier this year, this book shot up to my “top 5” favorites list. It is an incredible accomplishment, driven almost entirely by voice rather than by a traditional plot. Needless to say, I am now dying to read his forthcoming African fantasy trilogy, which also let’s the cat out of the bag about a death, while still inviting readers to care:

“The very, very basic plot is [that] this slave trader hires a bunch of mercenaries to track down a kid who may have been kidnapped,” he told the US magazine in an interview. “But finding him takes nine years, and at the end of it, the kid is dead. And the whole novel is trying to figure out: ‘How did this happen?’”

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