Book wars: A Brief History of Seven Killings versus How to be Both

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We pit the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, against How to be Both by Ali Smith, the title which won the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. Let battle commence...

Stylist’s contributing books editor Francesca Brown is evangelical about A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James (£6.99, Oneworld,, out now

This is it. Like Rocky v Apollo Creed, Godzilla v Mothra, Ronda Rousey v Holly Holm… this is the Book Wars to end all Book Wars as we pit the winners of 2015’s Man Booker Prize against the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. So first things first: of course they’re both astonishing and brilliant books. You don’t win prizes of this prestige without creating something pretty special indeed.

They’re also weirdly similar, mashing up fact and fiction with multiple narrators and timeframes that jump decades and centuries. Both even reference a mix of brilliant music (How To Be Both refers to a photo of French pop singers Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy which also doubles up as the book’s cover while the events of A Brief History Of Seven Killings whirl around an attempted assassination of reggae superstar Bob Marley in 1976).

But, while I admired Smith’s forensic exploration of grief and innovative structure, it didn’t win my heart. Marlon James, however, had me from hello. Working my way through the Booker shortlist, I was tentative about picking up A Brief History… unsure whether a 704-page book featuring Jamaican drug wars, CIA plots and gang murders was really what I wanted to relax with before bedtime. But from the first chapter – told from the perspective of a dead man – I was held rapt.

Marrying together the voices (and dialects) of underage criminals, hit men, care workers, drug lords, one-night stands and politicians, James unravels the story of Jamaica and beyond; a tale of the Seventies and Eighties, political corruption, international cartels and personal histories. It’s ambitious, moving and, at times, very funny (much like the author himself who was a headline act at our four-day event Stylist Live back in October).

Not just the Man Booker prize-winner of the year, Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings is the book of the year. Or put simply: a total knockout.

Rating: 5/5

Stylist’s deputy production editor Amy Adams falls for How To Be Both by Ali Smith (£4.99, Hamish Hamilton,, out now

Talk to anyone who’s read Ali Smith’s How To Be Both and the first question will be which story did you start with? In a clever twist, Smith published two versions of her sixth novel, one opening with the tale of teenage girl George, and the other with the real-life renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. Which version you read affects your whole experience of the novel.

I started with Francesco and, to be honest, struggled slightly to get into the poetic narrative of the painter, who has come back from the dead to tell us how he was born a woman but had to disguise herself as a man in order to gain success as a painter. (A loose poll reveals I’m not alone, while those who start with George’s story are gripped from the outset.) But persistence paid off and soon I was loving the unique, playful tone. There’s a shift to the present day when you meet George, who is mourning the recent death of her mother and reminiscing about a trip they took last summer to Italy to see frescoes by none other than Francesco del Cossa. Together the two strands muse on the nature of art and language, and the fluidity of accepted boundaries – of time, gender, life and death – without once feeling like vehicles for these lofty themes.  

It’s an ambitious novel and one rewarded by a slew of awards, including the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was also nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Richard Flanagan’s tale of Burma’s Death Railway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North. The Booker panel seems to be in the mood for violence again this year, awarding the prestigious prize to Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings.

Just as Narcos does to Mexico, A Brief History… takes you on a violent, rip-roaring ride through Jamaica’s bloodiest period – the Seventies. Brought to life by a sprawling cast of narrators, it’s both gripping and original. But in How To Be Both Smith reinvents the novel, turning the reading experience on its head while cloaking her experimentalism in two absorbing, intertwined plotlines. So for me, her book deserves to add the Book Wars prize to her already bulging trophy cabinet.

Rating: 4/5

The verdict: Marlon James is victorious again 

Neither Ali Smith nor Marlon James were favourites to win their respective literary prizes but the greater surprise was surely with James, a writer who faced 70 rejections for his first novel (John Crow’s Devil, eventually published in 2005) and the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize. While we love an underdog, that’s not the only reason James has won this week’s Book Wars. His raw, visceral novel exposes a violent underbelly of Jamaica, holding the reader (willingly) captive in that world. Read it now, before the HBO series comes out.

Compiled by: Amy Adams

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