Marlon James wins the Man Booker prize 2015
Author of A Brief History of Seven Killings – a fictional account of an attempt to take Bob Marley’s life – first Jamaican writer to win prestigious prize.
Marlon James has become the first Jamaican writer to win the Man Booker prize, taking the award for an epic, uncompromising novel not for the faint of heart. It brims with shocking gang violence, swearing, graphic sex, drug crime but also, said the judges, a lot of laughs. Visceral and uncompromising ... but it’s also an ingeniously structured feat of storytelling.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, a fictional history of the attempted murder of Bob Marley in 1976, was “an extraordinary book”, said Michael Wood, the chair of judges. “[It was] very exciting, very violent, full of swearing. It was a book we didn’t actually have any difficulty deciding on – it was a unanimous decision, a little bit to our surprise.”
James, aged 44, who lives in Minneapolis, is the first Jamaican author to win the prize in the Man Booker’s 47-year history. His novel has a lot of fans: it was described by the New York Times as: “like a Tarantino remake of the The Harder They Come, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner … sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.”
Accepting the award from Camilla, the Duchess of Cambridge, James said: “I just met Ben Okri [who won for The Famished Road in 1991] and it just reminded me of how much of my literary sensibilities were shaped by the Man Booker prize ... it suddenly increases your library by 13 books.”
He dedicated his win to his late father with who, he recalled, he used to have Shakespeare duels with as a boy. “Who can have the longest soliloquy ... just imagine a father and son in a Jamaican rum bar.”
James said he hoped his win would bring more attention to Caribbean writing but he admitted he had to leave Jamaica to write the book, it was “a novel of exile ... I needed that distance, I needed that sense of maybe there wouldn’t be consequences.” He said it was the riskiest novel he had written, in terms of subject and form and it was “affirming” winning the prize. “I would have been happy with two people liking it.”
In his Guardian review, the Jamaican poet Kei Miller praised the book’s ambition, writing that “[it] explores the aesthetics of cacophony and also the aesthetics of violence.”
A Brief History of Seven Killings might not be to all tastes; Wood recalled someone telling him that they liked to give the winners to their mother to read and James’s book might be a little difficult.
“My mother would not have got beyond the first few pages, because of the swearing,” he said. “Another reaction to people who say they don’t want to read this kind of thing is ‘it is very good for them to read it’.”
His fellow judges this year were author Frances Osborne, wife of the chancellor George; poet and novelist John Burnside; journalist Sam Leith; and critic and broadcaster Ellah Wakatama Allfrey.
Wood, professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Princeton, said it had quickly dawned on all the judges that James had to be the winner and there was no need for a vote. Not that the other books were not worthy contenders: “The call was easy but the distance was small.” A Brief History of Seven Killings won because it kept surprising the judges, said Wood. “There are many, many voices in the book and it just kept on coming, it kept on doing what it was doing.
“There is an excitement right from the beginning of this book,” he said. “A lot of it is very, very funny, a lot of it very human.” People should not be daunted or put off by the subject matter, he said. “It is not an easy read, it is a big book with some tough stuff and a lot of swearing but it is not a difficult book to approach.”
Ultimately, he said, James’ novel was “the most exciting book on the list.” The book, published by independent publisher Oneworld, might be called a “Brief History” but it is anything but: it runs to 686 pages with an enormous dramatis personae of hoodlums, CIA and FBI agents, ghosts, beauty queens and Keith Richards’ drug dealer. James himself has credited Charles Dickens as one of his key influences. He told an interviewer: “I still consider myself a Dickensian in as much as there aspects of storytelling I still believe in – plot, surprise, cliffhangers.” This year’s shortlist was striking for the grimness of the subject matter and the toughness of the reads.
The bookmakers’ favourite had been US writer Hanya Yanigahara for A Little Life, a huge, draining novel which contained some of the most awful accounts of child abuse, cruelty and self-harm that most people are likely to ever read. (Not that it was not brilliant too.) The other books were Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island; Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways; Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen; and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread.
Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles bookshops, said James’s book was: “Visceral and uncompromising … but 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.”
James was handed his £50,000 prize at a black tie dinner at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday night. With the money will likely come a big rise in sales: last year’s winner, Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, sold 300,000 copies in the UK and 800,000 worldwide.
This is the second year the prize has been open to writers of any nationality writing in English, which means Americans are eligible.
Wood said that was a good thing, widening the range of what was being considered by the judges. “The sheer range of stuff we read was amazing … there is stuff going on I didn’t know was going on,” he said.