I spent a number of days trying to decide if I could write a fair, impartial review of this book. The answer is, “No.” However, I decided to put down my thoughts in the hopes that they might help other readers decide if this is a book for them or not.
In short, this book is the telling, through multiple first person narrators, of a 1976 attempt on the life of reggae singer Bob Marley. The novel takes readers into the sordid underbelly of Jamaica during this and to a lesser extent the ensuing two decades, using as narrators such diverse characters as gang members, drug dealers, CIA operatives, reporters, and occasionally even a ghost. Central to the plot is the political climate of Jamaica at the time and its position, similar to Cuba, in a tug of war between Communist and Democratic ideologues. The final quarter of the book moves some of the plot beyond Jamaica to New York.
The print version of the book, for those parts narrated by Jamaican characters (the majority of the novel), is written in very dense dialect and a lot of patois. I chose to listen to the audio version, which I highly recommend for its assistance in easing the reader into what is, for most of us, a very foreign mode of speech. Normally, I listen to audios faster than normal—either 1.25 or 1.5. This one needed to go at normal speed in order for me to clearly comprehend what was being said. My one complaint with the audio is that the book has a huge cast of characters—a four page list in the print version—and not every narrator said who they were at the beginning of their chapter. Not all the voices where easily distinguishable from each other, so it wasn’t always clear. Every one of the narrators was, to me, outstanding, and it is very likely that this narration will rank as my number one audio book of 2016. That said, I have read complaints from native Jamaican reviewers that the accents were not at all authentic and to them, ridiculous.
Instead of my usual wordy paragraph review format, I am going to use bullet points to offset various elements of the novel to aid readers in deciding if this is a book that is right for you:
—multiple first person narrators, alternating chapters
—variety of styles, including stream of conscious
—very original in content, style, and sheer fearlessness
—graphically violent (murder, rape, you name it—it’s probably in there)
—very profane language throughout
—multiple plot threads, doled out to the reader bit by bit, gradually taking shape into a coherent story; requires patience on the part of the reader
—does not require prior knowledge of the time or place to follow the novel (other than realizing that “the singer” is Bob Marley; I don’t think he is ever mentioned by name)
—a bit lengthy (687 pages in print or 26 hours on audio)
So why, if I so clearly enjoyed the audio did I not rate the book higher? It was a purely personal thing. If I were rating the book on originality and craftsmanship, it would get, hands-down, five stars. However, five stars for me means I loved the book and would recommend it for everyone. Four stars means that I really enjoyed it but it had a few issues and might not be for everyone. Three stars means it was an interesting experimental read or it was a fluffy but well-written book. This book falls squarely into the “interesting experimental read” category. I greatly admired the overall structure of the book, and even more importantly for me, Marlon James brilliantly captured his characters—they vibrate with life, bringing me from my peaceful Alaska into their turbulent world. Unfortunately, FOR ME, the book contained far too graphic violence and far, far, far too much obscene language for me to give it the four or five stars that would lead my readers to believe that I give it a blanket endorsement for all readers. This is a very individual, subjective opinion. Many readers are not bothered by violence and profanity. If that is the case for you, and you enjoy a very original and well-crafted novel, this might very well be a five star read for you. Certainly the Man Booker Prize judges felt that way. They awarded it their prize for 2015.