John Crow's Devil, by Marlon James

God - and rum - on the rocks
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The Independent Culture

The action takes place in 1957, five years before Jamaican independence. Hector Bligh, a 53-year-old alcoholic pastor, presides over the Holy Sepulchral Full Gospel Church of St Thomas Apostolic. Often afflicted by the heebie-jeebies, he is nicknamed "the Rum Preacher".

One day his ministry is threatened when a stranger called "Apostle" York arrives in Gibbeah. The newcomer begins to curse Bligh as the devil's spawn, and eventually drives him out of town. Infuriated, Bligh finds refuge with a widow in a village nearby, where he covers his room in biblical graffiti threatening vengeance.

Having usurped Hector Bligh, the "Apostle" declares that a spirit of witchcraft has taken over Gibbeah. As evidence of "obeahism and Devilry", the village is plagued by John Crows (Jamaican patois for "vultures"). Corpses of the dead raptors begin to pile up. The villagers are persuaded to slaughter and burn all cows and goats; the beasts have the mark of the devil. The Rum Preacher is brought before the irate villagers.

James ratchets up the violence as he heaps on Jamaican local colour. The prose is wildly overheated ("Promise was a pink ray in the morning sky and a silent twinkle on unopened flowers"). At times, though, it has real vigour and energy. Of preacher York in his church, for example: "Sweat would fly from his fingers and kiss the women in the front row who felt blessed indeed." In its lavish cruelty, John Crow's Devil encourages the foreign view of Jamaica as a place of exotic oblivion, rum-fuelled assaults and vendetta.

Eventually it is revealed that the "Apostle" is both syphilitic and homsexual. Is this a value judgement? Indeed, by tearing down the kingdom of Satan, we are left to wonder if "Apostle" is not himself Satan. That, at any rate, is the impression left by this Salkey-inspired parable of sin and redemption.

Ian Thomson, author of 'Bonjour Blanc: A journey Through Haiti', is currently writing a book on Jamaica