Potted Reviews 1 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Switched by Ryan Bracha

It’s been a while since I’ve written any reviews so I might be a touch ring rusty. But I’ve got a backlog to get through, so here goes.

First up is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which won last year’s Booker Prize. History takes an assassination attempt on Bob Marley as it’s starting point and weaves a massive tale of corruption, politics, power, murder, and Jamaica. It encompasses a huge array of characters, some of whom change identities at certain points in the story. When this book is at its best it is superb but, at its worst, it’s a slog. However, the good massively outweighs the bad. Some have compared this to Ellroy (which is why I picked it up in the first place), but it’s nothing of the sort. Character is secondary to plot in Ellroy’s work, whereas James’ novel is all character – the plot is loose, and certain parts of it don’t gel well at all. James’ characters all have clear and defined voices, whereas Post LA Quartet Ellroy has one voice: the Demon Dog. What the two writers do share is an ambitious historical narrative vision that fuses real life events with detailed fiction, along with a tendency to take their characters on a seamy, seedy journey. In this case, James weaves a fictional history of modern day Jamaica out of the attempted murder of Bob Marley. It’s ambitious, superbly written, and often addictive. But, in places, it’s also a baggy, slow slog of a read that is in drastic need of an edit. For all its faults this is still a superb piece of work.

Regular readers will know how highly I rate Ryan Bracha. I loved Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, and Paul Carter is a Dead Man, and Ben Turner is a Dead Man. He has style, inventiveness, and wit to burn. Well, The Switched takes the wit and invention contained in those tales and ramps it up. In this novel, five unrelated people get switched into different bodies in a weird one-off event. Gradually, violent circumstances and strong personalities bring them together for a brutal final act. The Switched is great fun (as long as you’ve got a strong stomach). It’s as different from the Dead Man trilogy as it is from the universe of Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, but the novel shares the sharp, cutting satirical edge and the tendency towards experimental prose and structure. The reasons for the switch are never made clear (it’s possible that Bracha will reveal the reason in later books), so the focus is on the personalities. Bracha’s characters are pretty much all unlikeable with the exception of Charlie/Jake, but good writing ensures that they go through exciting transformations (and I’m not just referring to the switch itself but dealing with gender and gender fluidity), and the story is compelling enough to keep you reading to the end.

Ryan Bracha is fast building up an interesting, diverse, and impressive body of work. He seems to push himself from book to book – unwilling to settle for one genre or style of writing – and his back catalog is all the better for it. The Switched is another strong addition to this collection and comes highly recommended.

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Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winner in part to escape the crime fiction reading ghetto I’ve happily trapped myself in over the past few months (with only a few Philip K Dick’s to break the mould; and his stuff melds crime into the mix anyway). As my three regular readers will now know, I love crime fiction, but it’s nice to step away from a constant diet of it every once in a while.

Tony Webster is an average retired gentleman with a pleasantly average life. He’s been happy to accept a quiet existence for a long time as a quiet marriage, family and eventual divorce can testify. He reminisces about school, his mates and their friendship with Adrian, a ridiculously intelligent young man who definitely isn’t destined for an average life.

They all go their separate ways to University but vow to keep in touch. Tony falls for another student Veronica who is haughty, opinionated, and somewhat more determined than him. They date for a while, which includes an awkward weekend with her family, of whom the mother seems to be the only one who shows any real warmth towards Tony. He also takes her to meet his friends. She takes a shine to Adrian, but not in any pronounced way. Though when Tony and Veronica’s differences inevitably split them up she ends up with Adrian, who in an old-fashioned gesture asks Tony to understand their intentions. Tony replies with two letters. The first he sends almost as a joke. A fine, whatever, type of letter, but second he sends when he is drunk. A go to hell letter, as it were. They lose contact with each other after that.

A few months later Adrian commits suicide and eventually Tony and the rest of his school friends drift apart. Tony marries and lives out his ordinary life. So when he receives a letter telling him that Veronica’s mother has left him a letter, £500, and Adrian’s diary in her will he is intrigued. He becomes even more intrigued when he realises that Veronica won’t hand over the diary. He slowly gets back in contact with her and finds that his memory of events all those years ago is not what it seemed.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, as I’d never read any of Barnes’ previous work, but I’m damn glad I read it. In its own economical and laidback manner this beautiful short novel works as a kind of detective fiction. The only difference is that the narrator is looking into his own past, finding out things about his friend and himself that might be better left dimmed by the passage of time. The language is concise and clean and the narrative is beautifully weighted. There’s a point where you wonder when the narrator is going to get on with telling the story until you realise he’s been telling it all along, we’ve just been too slow to recognise it, kind of like the narrator himself; told at one point that, “You just don’t get it…” TSOAE is so good, in my humble opinion at least, that it’s knocked Roger Smith’s Capture off its perch as the finest novel I have read this year. Beautifully written, well plotted, and with real emotional weight, this is work of the highest quality. Highly recommended.