The Jamaican novelist Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” a raw, violent epic that uses the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 to explore Jamaican politics, gang wars and drug trafficking. Mr. James is the first Jamaican-born author to win the Man Booker, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. At a ceremony at London’s Guildhall
, Mr. James said he was so certain that he would not win that he did not prepare an acceptance speech.
“I’m not an easy writer to like,” he said, referring to his experimental style.
The Booker judges praised Mr. James’s stylistic range and his unflinching exploration of violence, cronyism and corruption.
“It’s a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about,” Michael Wood, the chair of the Booker judges, said when awarding the prize.
Mr. James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970, and studied literature at the University of the West Indies. He worked in advertising for more than a decade, as a copywriter, art director and graphic designer. He inherited his father’s love of literature — the two of them often recited Shakespearean soliloquies to each other. He took a writing workshop in Kingston, Jamaica, and later enrolled in a writing program at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania
His first novel, “John Crow’s Devil” was published in 2005 by Akashic Books and centers on two rival preachers in a Jamaican village in 1957. His second novel, “The Book of Night Women,” published in 2009, is about a Jamaican woman named Lilith who is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in the 18th century.
Mr. James spent four years working on “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” In an interview at the awards ceremony, Mr. James said he first envisioned it as a short crime novel. Instead, the story morphed into an epic tale that spans decades and continents, weaving together the stories of real-life people, among them Cuban exiles, Jamaican politicians and C.I.A. operatives.
“I kept running into dead ends with the stories until a friend of mine said, ‘Why do you think it’s one story?’ ” Mr. James said. He realized that Mr. Marley, who is referred to as the Singer in the novel, was the connective cloth that held all the narrative threads together. “Funnily enough, Marley was a character in most of these stories and I didn’t even notice,” he said.
Mr. James said that once he cracked the structure of the novel, he struggled with the style, which incorporates dialects and Jamaican patois, sprinkling in free verse and slipping into stream-of-consciousness. “I thought it would be considered as one of those experimental novels that no one reads,” he said.
Instead, the novel, which was published in the United States
by Riverhead Books in 2014, received glowing reviews. In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called the book “epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over the top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.”
Mr. James, who now lives in Minneapolis
and teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul
, said that he also wrestled with how to depict Jamaica’s violent past while he was working on the novel. “We don’t want to talk about the history, we don’t want to talk about the corruption, we don’t even want to talk about homosexuality,” he said. “I love my country to death but I also remember how much of our history is paid for in blood. Were I in Jamaica, I would not have written this novel.”
Mr. James was considered something of a long shot among this year’s nominees, which included a geographically and stylistically diverse group of writers from around the world. The contest for the Booker, which was first awarded in 1969, grew more heated last year, when the prize was opened up to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Previously, the award was restricted to novelists from Britain
and the Commonwealth nations.
The finalists included the Nigerian novelist Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel “The Fishermen,” which unfolds in Nigeria
in the 1990s and centers on four brothers whose lives are upended by a troubling prophecy from a madman, and a novel by Anne Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American, called “A Spool of Blue Thread,” a quiet drama about a middle-class family in Baltimore
Also considered were the British novelist Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island,” a manic, dizzying story of an anthropologist who becomes a corporate consultant and seeks to write an all-encompassing “Great Report” that sums up our era; “The Year of the Runaways,” by the British novelist Sunjeev Sahota, which follows Indian immigrants struggling in England; and “A Little Life,” a wrenching novel by the American novelist Hanya Yanagihara about four young, ambitious college friends who are building careers in New York
while one wrestles with the trauma of past sexual abuse.
Mr. James said he hoped the award would draw attention to the flourishing literary scene in his home country.
“There’s this whole universe of really spunky creativity that’s happening,” he said. “I hope it brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”