A novel by Marlon James
In this tale enveloped in darkness, is a story of two preachers, as they battle to win over the people of Gibbeah, a small Jamaican village. The Pastor, aka the Rum Preacher, is also the village drunk and the newly arrived Apostle who ‘came like a thief on a night coloured silver‘ has come to save the village. These are the two religious forces, good and evil, the Pastor and the Apostle. However, neither are as they seem.
The backdrop is the realism of village life in the 1950s and the simple minded religious folk that occupy it. Gibbeah looms in your imagination as a forsaken bit of land on the periphery of Kingston. It was established when slaves were first freed and this is was the only affordable place to settle.
When the Apostle arrives he is welcomed eagerly by the villagers, after the embarrassment and shame that the Rum Preacher. It’s only half way into the book that you’ve slipped into a supernatural element, when religious fever is at its highest and the Apostle is at his most dominating, that things don’t seem quite right. It’s only half way through that you realise that this book belongs to the genre of horror.
Like all good reads, you are searching for the motive driving the story. It’s more original than the concept of a whole village converted to religious mania. That would require denying religion. It’s about how easily the devil resides in religion. And it’s through the unconventional Widow Greenhithe and her simple compassion is who’s house God has chosen. Marlon James has placed the actual existence of God and the Devil, at the heart of this novel.
The book explores the concept of revenge, but also consequence and context. Lucinda, a simpleton where now dark forces lurk, had a troubled upbringing. The Apostle has a similar story. The whole of Gibbeah, the forsaken village and how it once came to stand, was also born of something that disturbs.
Like all Marlon James’s books, John Crows Devil would work great in a film. Or perhaps it’s the power of his writing, so vivid with imagery. With the re-occurring John Crows that circle Gibbeah and the Apostle’s gown that ‘bellows but there is no wind’, it’s something the camera could capture and work well on a screen.
According to Good Reads this is the least popular of Marlon James’s three books, but for me it’s my favourite. Having read them in anti-chronical order, The Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) is what won him the Booker Prize and is a thrilling Tarantino stylised novel set in the streets of Kingston over several decades. The Book of Night Women (2009) is based on a slave plantation and the horrors of it lingers with you for months later. However John Crows Devil (2005) exceeds them all, where it is a tale told with the gusto of a preachers voice, booming and luminous, about good and evil.
Having read of a few reviews, Marlon James is often referred to as the newly emerging writer to keep an eye on. It won’t be long before he turns into a household name. I couldn’t agree more!