I love a book that delves into the darker side of human nature. The bleaker the better.
But John Crow’s Devil, the debut novel from Marlon James, who went on to win the Booker Prize with A Brief History Of Seven Killings, is so unremittingly grim that by the end even I was exhausted.
This is a story of how organised religion, when organised by the wrong hands, can turn into
a vehicle for evil.
So far, so fascinating. James’s ability to create a world so consistently horrible is seriously impressive.
From the downright nasty, to the comically weird, John Crow’s Devil is a book saturated in an atmosphere of the uncanny.
The story begins with an alcoholic preacher in a small Jamaican town being thrown out of his own church by a new arrival, the charismatic ‘Apostle York’.
As the mysterious Apostle strengthens his hold, the townspeople become convinced that extreme actions are required to ensure their their sanctity, and events spiral into horrors both man-made and
supernatural. It’s a terrible indictment of what people are capable of when they are
frightened, and mob mentality takes over.
The ‘John Crow’ of the title refers to the turkey vultures whose corpses start to litter the town in increasing numbers. I told you it was bleak. At one point Hector Bligh, the failed preacher, imagines his friend will be eaten by mice and cockroaches, just ‘because there was nothing else to do.’ It’s that sort of book.
No opportunity to be pessimistic or unsettling is passed up.
But there is a huge amount to admire here, and not just the enthusiastic celebration of
This is a book full of nuanced, complicated and interesting characters, Apostle York being the stand-out figure among them.
The more we get under his skin, the more terrifying he becomes.
While on one level John Crow’s Devil is about a primal battle between good and evil, it is
also an exploration of how both exist in some form in most people, and which one wins out
often just depends on circumstances.
It has the same power to make us feel that we’re
eating, sleeping and breathing a book that James achieves so successfully in A Brief History
Of Seven Killings.
But maybe I should move onto something with a pink neon cover next to lighten the mood?