Jamaica: divine retribution

This was a recommendation from novelist and blogger Stephanie Saulter. She said that as I’d enjoyed Gaiman’s American Gods she thought I might like this ‘wonderfully dark fantasy that weaves folk tales and superstition into a real-life story of betrayal, deprivation and alienation’. I was intrigued.

Set in the fantastical town of Gibbeah – where birds attack humans and certain houses assume magical powers – Marlon James’s debut novel John Crow’s Devil examines the lengths that fear and hearsay will drive people to. When the self-proclaimed ‘Apostle’ York strides into the midst of a church service to drag the drunkard Hector Bligh, known as ‘the Rum Preacher’, from the pulpit, many see it as the wake-up call their sleepy community needs. But as the Apostle assumes control and begins to preach an erratic gospel of fire, brimstone, vengeance and violence for all those who do not stick to the path of righteousness, a darker truth emerges that tips the town into a spiral of hell.

James excels at portraits of outsiders. All his major characters harbour some secret suffering that sets them apart from the community and on course for the collision that blows the narrative into the stratosphere in the closing stages of the book. There is the self-loathing and prudish church administrator Lucinda, the fanatical and warped Apostle, the lonely widow who harbours the Rum Preacher, and of course guilt-ridden Bligh himself.

James puts these individual stories against a backdrop of suspicion and narrow-mindedness – ‘a town that preferred things black or white’ where ‘church people, through their stares, created a boundary of shame that few climbed over’. Oscillating between a more detached third-person narrative style and a collective, community voice, he weaves a web of whispers that evokes small-town gossip-mongering in all its terrifying yet seductive fullness:

‘Yes baba! Rumour jump from her yard and race down the street and stop at Mrs Fracas house, then Mrs Smithfield house where it pick up two more story, then it hop and skip and jump from one yard to the next, then it race to the grocery shop where it bounce and bounce like American ball. And every time rumour bounce, the story pick up something new.’

This use of multiple, characterful voices combines with superlative, supple writing that is more than equal to the horrors it unfolds – among them one of the most graphic and powerful flogging scenes going. What in another writer’s hands might descend into cheap sensationalism here grows in stature and subtlety with every twist of the knife. An outstanding piece of work. Thanks for the tip-off, Stephanie.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008)