[This article was originally published in The Jamaica Sunday Observer. This online version has been slightly amended from the original article.]
John Crow’s Devil, Marlon James’ explosive entrance onto the literary stage, is not your conventional Caribbean novel. For starters, it has an unusual opening – it begins at ‘The End’. Readers are propelled immediately into the nub of the story, and thus from the outset are robbed of the element of surprise. Yet here is a book so tight with tension and suffused with mystery, it was hailed as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2006. ‘It’s the road to ruin that fascinates me, the journey if you will’ James says in explanation of his structural decision. And what an expedition this novel takes you on!
James’ debut novel transports you to a tiny fictional village named Gibeah situated in the wilderness of the Jamaican countryside. It is the 1950s but really, time is irrelevant in a village like Gibeah whose one connection to the outside world is a bridge which is scarcely traversed and that is ultimately destroyed. Gibeah is a timeless place where myth and reality live side-by-side, as do magic and religion. This is a village still recovering from the effects of colonialism; a village struggling to find its own identity beneath the shame and horror that has been beaten into their flesh; a village that keeps to itself and does not meddle in other people’s affairs for fear of being reprimanded by the ‘Massa’. Gibeah is the perfect pitch for the gripping battle between Good and Evil that is at the core of this thrilling story.
Whilst John Crow’s Devil does maintain many of the conventions of a gothic novel, it is not your middle-of-the-road gothic tale either. The battle does not take place between your average squeaky-clean handsome hero and your usual deformed monstrosity of a villain. The battle is between two preachers: a weak-willed guilt-ridden alcoholic, whose Christian name is Hector Bligh but who is known by all as the Rum Preacher, and a charismatic orator who calls himself Apostle York but who increasingly reveals himself to be less of a man of Jesus and more of a master of the dark arts. The ‘Apostle’ materialises mysteriously on the morning of Ash Wednesday clad all in black in robes that ‘billowed though there was no wind’, and, with the rising of two fingers, ousts the Rum Preacher from his Church. Thus begins the raging war for the souls of the villagers of Gibeah between the allegorical Devil and a born-again Preacher Bligh.
Firmly grounded in its setting yet riddled with universal messages, John Crow’s Devil encompasses broad themes such as love and lust, faith and disease, religion and black magic, and the effects of letting power consume you. In succinct yet sensuous prose, James exposes the greatest human vice of all, man’s attempt to overstep his powers and play at Creator. James uses his intricately woven fable to explore the human psyche, particularly the psychology of ex-colonised countries, and the story is permeated with reverberations of the disastrous act of slavery.
The novel is, for the most part, written through the eyes of an omniscient narrator in a taut Standard English that has been likened to Cormac McCarthy. However, interspersed throughout the novel are the voices of the villagers, short segments that are written in the first person and recounted in patois. James captures the rhythms of rural Jamaican dialect delectably, although the anglicised spelling of some of the words curbs this somewhat. Whilst most of the text is peppered with Jamaican proverbs and folklore, these narrative moments are laden with them and really add some spice to the book.
A word of caution – this novel is not for the fainthearted. The majority of the scenes are raw and uncensored. Like Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of The Christ, at the most horrific moments you expect the camera to move away, but it doesn’t: it lingers and observes. In fact James’ pen hones in and provides you with a close up of the gore! Take for instance the beating of two of the villagers who have been caught in the act of adultery. They are whipped with the mercilessness of a ‘Massa’, and James describes every detail with immaculate intricacy, turning your stomach and making your skin crawl.
Whilst the gruesome nature of the novel makes it, at times, not the most enjoyable read, it is certainly a captivating one. John Crow’s Devil enchants you with its magical incantations, mesmerizes you with its pungent aromas, and its graphic images and poignant message haunt you long after you have closed the cover. Fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison’s earlier works will adore this!