First there were 156 novels and then 13, then six and now, at last, just the one - Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings. The 2015 Man Booker Prize winner is a story of Bob Marley (or "The Singer" as he is termed), a botched assassination, drugs, violence, gangs, swearing, reggae and the CIA. It is a tale told in Jamaican patois and in poetry by a myriad voices - of the living and the dead. It is very much a work of fiction and not reportage or fact reimagined. It is, as the chair of judges Professor Michael Wood said, a book that "just keeps coming".
With his win James becomes the first Jamaican novelist to win the prize and, what's more, as Wood revealed, the decision to award him the prize didn't even go to a vote. The judges, he said, spent a long time talking about all the books on the shortlist and "as we talked certain books seemed further away . . . and then it dawned on us, this was the book". The gap between the shortlisted novels was small but clear, and the vote was unanimous. James's novel, said Wood, was, quite simply, "the most exciting book on the list".
A Brief History of Seven Killings is not, however, as Wood acknowledged, an easy book - its subject matter and language are both challenging (indeed Wood confessed that he wouldn't have recommended it to his own mother - she wouldn't have put up with the swearing) but it is also rewarding and challenging and forces the reader to consider the sort of conditions the gangs in the novel inhabit and how they came about. It looks too at a certain place and time - Jamaica in 1976. James, said Wood, knows he presents the reader with difficulties so he helps by providing a way into the story, through humour and excitement. "Funny and grim" was the judges' opinion but they found it to be a mixture that works.
It works in part because the judges see James as a sort of Jamaican Dickens with the language in the novel almost, at times, becoming the novel: there is, for example, a chapter narrated in verse and there are 75 characters in all. Wood and his peers started with an aversion to books in dialogue but still James won them over. The patois, said Wood, was all about convincing the reader of its authenticity (though for good measure one judge quizzed a Jamaican poet about the quality of James's ear - it was, apparently, "spot on"). The judges liked the way he switched "from Jamaican slang to almost biblical heights" and they liked too his ban on adverbs.
It has been an arduous process for the judges - the shortlisted books alone amount to 2,708 pages (which they read at least three times) - but a satisfying one. Wood said that at the beginning of the judging process, all those months ago, he assumed that the novel as a form was in a healthy state, albeit a neatly contained one. Reading for the prize, however, had shown him and his fellow judges a bewildering breadth they hadn't suspected - a range that was full of pleasure and full of surprises. James's novel was the best surprise of all.