Jamaican author Marlon James on Tuesday won the Man Booker Prize for “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, a re-telling of the attempted assassination of musician Bob Marley.
James, 44, is the first Jamaican to win the award in its 47-year history. One of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, the Man Booker Prize carries a £50,000 (67,000 euro, $77,000) prize and winners enjoy a boost in sales and a global readership.
“Oh my god, oh wow,” James said as he took to the podium in dreadlocks and a tuxedo after being announced the winner at the ceremony in London.
“This is so sort of ridiculous I think I’m going to wake up tomorrow and it didn’t happen,” he added, as he dedicated the award to his late father.
Set in James’ birthplace of Kingston, the 686-page crime tale traces the rise of the drug trade on the Caribbean island and contains a chapter written in Jamaican patois.
Based on real events, it recounts how Bob Marley and his entourage were attacked just before a concert in December 1976, referring to the reggae superstar as “The Singer” throughout.
“It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about,” said chair of judges Michael Wood after the winner was announced.
“It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.”
Wood praised the book’s “startling” range of voices and ability to range from early crack gangs in Miami and New York to CIA intervention in Jamaica.
The New York Times had described the book as “epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex”.
Britain’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles, presented James with the prize at a glittering ceremony.
Asked about how it felt to be the first Jamaican to take the prize, James said he hoped the win would draw attention to more talented writers from the Caribbean.
“Jamaica has a really, really rich literary tradition. It is surreal being the first. I hope I’m not the last and I don’t think I will be,” James said.
The writer, who now lives in Minneapolis in the United States, called the work “a novel of exile” and said he needed the perspective and distance to be able to write “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, his third novel.
“This is the riskiest novel I’ve ever written not just in terms of subject matter but in terms of form,” he told journalists. “I’d be happy with two people liking it.”
The book beat bookmaker’s favourite, US author Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”, a disturbing tale of male friendship with graphic details of child sex abuse, which had been the 6/4 favourite to win.
Also shortlisted were Briton Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”, “The Fishermen” by Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma, American author Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread” and British writer Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island”.
While accepting the award James paid tribute to former winner Salman Rushdie, who took the prize for “Midnight’s Children” in 1981.
Rushdie had previously said his days of winning were “gone”, telling the Daily Telegraph on Monday that there “seems to be a desire to move away from established names” in the award.
But the chair of judges Wood said the panel had “no predetermined criteria” and that each of the five judges had independently chosen “A Brief History of Seven Killings” as their preferred winner.
The Man Booker Prize was previously open only to fiction written in English by authors from Britain, Ireland, the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe but this is the second year it has been open to all nationalities.
Last year’s winner, Australian Richard Flanagan, has sold 800,000 copies of his “The Narrow Road To The Deep North” to date.