Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize in London on Tuesday night for “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
James, 44, is the first Jamaican writer to win the prize. He took Britain’s highest literary honor from a field of six finalists that included previous Booker nominee Tom McCarthy and Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler.
“A Brief History of Seven Killings,” James’s third novel, tells a violent tale set in Jamaica about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. It was chosen by The Washington Post as one of the 10 best books of 2014.
When he went to the lectern after accepting his award, James noted how much previous Booker Prize winners have meant to him and have shaped his own work. “My great turning point as a writer was when a friend of mine handed me Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Shame,’ ” he said. “And I remember reading it and being so appalled by it. . . . The idea that those things were possible in fiction just never, never occurred to me.”
But James said, “If anybody shaped my literary sensibility, it was my dad, which is funny because my dad never read fiction.” His father preferred Coleridge and used to challenge his son to Shakespeare reciting contests. “He shaped my love of books,” James said. “He’s no longer here with us, and I really want to dedicate this award to him and his memory.”
James noted that 10 years ago, he had given up on writing but was encouraged to persist by a visiting American teacher named Kaylie Jones. He managed to reclaim an abandoned manuscript from an old laptop and begin again. “This is so sort of ridiculous,” James said. “I think I’m going to wake up tomorrow and think it didn’t happen.”
The chair of the Booker judges, Michael Wood, said “A Brief History of Seven Killings” 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. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.”
James teaches English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Last fall he delivered a startling story at the Moth in New York that described his early life in a Pentecostal church in Jamaica where he was once subjected to an exorcism.
The Man Booker Prize was presented by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
This was the second year that the Man Booker contest has been open to anyone writing in English whose book was published in the United Kingdom. Previously, only citizens of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe were eligible.
The other books on the shortlist this year were:
• “Satin Island,” by Tom McCarthy (Britain)
• “The Fishermen,” by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)
• “The Year of the Runaways,” by Sunjeev Sahota (Britain)
• “A Spool of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler (U.S.)
• “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara (U.S.)
Each shortlisted author received about $3,800 and a specially bound edition of his or her book. As the winner, James received about $76,000 and a virtual guarantee that his book will sell hundreds of thousands of additional copies worldwide.
In addition to Wood, this year’s judges included Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith and Frances Osborne. They considered 156 submitted titles.
Last year’s winner was “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan.
The Booker Prize was established in 1969 and is now sponsored by Man, an investment management firm.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.