I’ve had this book on my Goodreads To Read list for a while, but when I heard author Marlon James was coming to Chicago as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, I knew I had to see him speak. That meant getting the book and trying to read 700+ pages in less than two weeks. Sadly, I did not manage to meet that goal. But I was a good two-thirds of the way through by the time I went to his CHF session.
I was nervous to tackle this book because I anticipated it would be a tough read, mainly because I knew there would be dialogue in Jamaican Patois, which is a language spoken there. Actually, before hearing James speak, I didn’t realize how much discussion there was around Patois, and whether it’s a dialect or language. Google it to learn more, because I’m definitely not qualified to go into the details.
There were certainly challenging parts of A Brief History. One was indeed reading chapters written in patois, but it did not end up bothering me much once I got into the flow of things. I found myself trying to imagine how the words would sound in my head as I read, basically trying to read with a Jamaican accent (do not ask me to try and actually speak it). It made me feel like I was hearing these characters speak in the way they truly would. One girl even stopped me on the train as I was reading A Brief History, and admitted that the use of patois had kept her from finishing the book to date. But I ended up enjoying that part of it.
The other challenging piece was the sheer quantity of characters and points of view. There are four pages of characters up front, ten of which are narrators. That means a lot of points of view, a lot of versions of events and a lot of people to keep straight in your head. But again, it wasn’t as daunting as it seemed. When I first started the book, I kept referring to the character list up front to try for reference, but as I moved through the story it became clear who the main characters were and which narrators were just adding color here and there.
In hearing James speak, it was interesting to hear him reference the structure of the novel by saying, “Memory is not linear. That’s not the way we speak or dream.”
He also observed differences in mentality among Western storytelling versus Caribbean. “Western tradition asks, ‘What’s the true story?’ But there is no true story. That’s not how it works.”
I’m not great at writing book reviews, so I also recommend you check out this NY Times review of A Brief History, which captures a lot of the things I loved about the book. And I definitely recommend you add this novel to your to-read list.