Find it at your library!

Can I take a moment to engage in some public self-congratulation? Because I am SO PROUD that I finished this book.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, A Brief History of Seven Killings is about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late ‘70s. Well, it’s kind of about that. That’s the event around which the book centers, and everything spirals out crazily from there. It’s about the drug trade, politics, Kingston ghettos, personal escape and reinvention, and people who suffer violence becoming violent themselves. It’s big and ambitious and explicit and devastating and very, very occasionally hopeful.

And man, is it a challenge. First of all, it’s long. 688 pages in print, or if you’re crazy like me, 26 hours of audio. You could literally listen to it for an ENTIRE DAY and it still wouldn’t be over. Secondly, it’s got more narrators than you can shake a stick at. Keeping track of all the disparate voices as they’re introduced is like ducking under continuous cannon fire. In the beginning, the chapters are short enough I’d barely grasped onto the coattails of the current character before he ran out of my reach and I was presented with someone new to chase after. And finally, the many sections written in Jamaican patois were hard to parse until I got used to the rhythm and slang.

In the middle of the book, the action gets thick and the chapters get long. I was losing steam, switching over to podcasts in the mornings and avoiding my Audible app. Sometimes I don’t want to hear about drug trafficking and violent deaths as I’m putting on my eyeliner. I thought, maybe there’s no shame in quitting. I tried, right? Moving on to something less demanding was sounding better and better.

Then came the announcement that Brief History had won the Booker, and suddenly I was a lot more excited about finishing it. (Yes, I’m impressionable. It’s a problem. I’m working on it, thanks.)

I’m super glad I stuck with it. I feel like I’ve run an endurance race, but I enjoyed myself more and more the closer I got to the end (which from what I understand is the opposite of how one would feel in an actual endurance race, not that I ever intend to find out personally, as committed as I am to my stance that jogging is terrible). The din of voices eventually come together into, if not a cohesive whole, at least an understandable collage. And I learned a lot: what it’s like to be high on cocaine, for one. And that even though I’ve been there as a tourist, I knew nothing about Jamaica or its people. (If you're expecting any character to say “Yah mon” without irony, you will likely experience the same realization.)

Marlon James is a deserving prizewinner. I'm a better citizen of this world for having read his book, and I'm heartened that the awards recognition will bring him a bigger audience.

Find it at your library!

Storytelling is a powerful thing.

I remember a woman who came to our elementary school to tell stories. We all gathered on the floor in the library. She stood in front of us empty-handed. No book anywhere in sight. I was both a very literate and a very visual child, so it confounded me that this woman intended to tell us a story without reading it from a book. Where exactly was the story going to come from?

And then she opened her mouth, and I forgot everything but the sound of her voice. Someone could have snapped her fingers in front of my face and I wouldn't have flinched. Adults had been reading aloud to me since probably the day I was born (thanks Mom and Dad!), but I had never encountered anything like this—the storyteller's voice, the way it rose like thunder and then tapered away to silence, made me lean forward, my muscles tensed in physical anticipation of what was coming next. It wasn't just her expressiveness. There was something about the way the story came through her, as if it were electricity and she the conductor. She wasn't turning pages and parroting what a book told her to say. The story was inside her somewhere, and with only her voice, she conjured it before our eyes.

As she spoke, I could picture that story more clearly than any illustrated book I'd ever read.

Reading Land of Love and Drowning reminds me of that experience from years ago. It feels like an oral history, the kind of story you'd be told before bedtime, in fragments, over many, many nights. It's a moderate 350 pages, but it reads slow like molasses, the generations of characters looping back on each other, making the same mistakes and suffering the same losses, often without knowing they walk a well-worn path. Something about the years passing in the lives of the characters makes me want to slow down and feel the weight of all that time.

In 1917 the Bradshaws have just become Americans along with the rest of the inhabitants of the Virgin Islands, as the land is transferred from Danish control. Captain Bradshaw has spent his life on the sea, and it's the sea that claims him when his boat meets a reef. He leaves behind a tangled web of women: his wife Antoinette, his beautiful daughter Eeona, the baby Anette who is too young to remember him, and a mistress, Rebekah, who holds the power of dark magic but could never control his love. Through the years, these women's lives will overlap and intersect in strange and unsettling ways.

Just like the storyteller that visited my school, Tiphanie Yanique transported me to another place and time with this book. I don't feel like I read it so much as breathed it in.