‘Jamaican Dickens’ Marlon James scoops the 2015 Man Booker Prize

Lucy Scholes

This year, the world’s most prestigious literary prize became a battle of the doorstoppers. The bookies’ favourite, A Little Life, lost out to A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Two years ago, when the Man Booker Prize announced it was opening its doors to American authors (previously only citizens of the UK, Commonwealth countries, Zimbabwe and Ireland had been eligible) purists feared that an influx of US authors would swamp what had traditionally been a very British award.

New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s 2013 win for The Luminaries could have been something of a swansong for the prize’s Commonwealth history, but two years on and we’ve still yet to see it awarded to an American author. Hanya Yanagihara came close last night, her novel A Little Life was the bookies favourite, but in the end Jamaican-born Marlon James pipped her to the post.

 

A Little Life
A Little Life was the bookies favourite

James’s novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is in many ways everything contemporary literature should be. It’s a complex tale built around a single central event—the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in 1976. It boasts a huge cast of characters, from gang members to CIA operatives, spans three decades flitting between Jamaica and the US and is written for the most part in dialect.

It has won comparisons to both William Faulkner (style: stream of consciousness) and Quentin Tarantino (content: brutal violence), and although it isn’t an easy or comforting read, no one can claim it’s not an exhilarating ride.

 

"The diversity displayed in the shortlist did nothing if not reinforce the fact that there are so many different ways to tell the English Language Novel"

 

Not only the first Jamaican-born author to be awarded this prestigious prize, James’s win is even more of an achievement considering that this year’s shortlist. It was marked, as the chair of the judges Michael Wood pointed out last night, by a depth and breadth of literary endeavour that displayed a multiplicity of English languages.

From Anne Tyler’s understated family drama, A Spool of Blue Thread; Tom McCarthy’s experimental Satin Island; Chigozie Obioma’s mythic The Fishermen; through Sunjeev Sahota’s timely tale of immigration in Britain, The Year of the Runaways; and Yanagihara’s character-driven examination of childhood trauma, the list showcased a host of talent.

As James observed in his acceptance speech, the diversity displayed in the shortlist reinforced the fact that there are so many different ways to tell the English Language Novel. That said, it appears there might still be one single master of the trade.

 

Marlon James
Marlon James. Image via Gawker

The judges described James as a Jamaican Dickens, and the author himself has cited the Victorian writer as one of his most important influences: “I still consider myself a Dickensian in as much as there aspects of storytelling I still believe in—plot, surprise, cliffhangers.”

At nearly 700 pages in the paperback edition, James’s novel certainly gives Dickens a run for his money; but he’s not the only one. From The Luminaries, through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Garth Risk Hallberg’s upcoming City on Fire, there’s a clear trend for epic novels that owe a debt to Dickens. Foresighted readers might even want to put an early bet on Hallberg for next year’s prize.

Although at first glance at odds with our 140 character-hungry culture, the length of these doorstops allow for the weaving of gloriously in-depth yarns with a distinctly Dickensian bent. Interconnected characters from different social strata; a plot hinged on various mysteries and intrigue; and a detailed, period-specific rendering of a particular historic moment.

Interestingly, it was precisely the absence of these elements that appeared to irk some readers about Yanagihara’s novel, not satisfied by her explanation that she wanted it to read like a fairytale, the associated artificiality, exaggeration and melodrama all entirely intentional.

I, for one, thought this was very much part of the novel’s allure, but it seems that on this occasion a particular type of gritty realism has won out.

 

Lucy Scholes is a contributing editor at Bookanista, and writes for The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement, The Observer, BBC Culture and The National. She also teaches at Tate Modern.

 

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