This is the novel that made its way into the winner's speech at the Booker prize ceremony a fortnight ago for being rejected 78 times; the debut that was electronically binned by Marlon James, only retrieved when a novelist insisted James show her the abandoned manuscript. John Crow's Devil brings with its publication – for the first time in the UK – the prospect of being so unexceptional, or flawed, that it threatened to end a writing career before it had begun, and the vindication of being so exceptional that Kaylie Jones, the novelist who insisted on reading it, then edited it for free.
This debut is perhaps the most accessible of all three of James's books, a novel about religious mania and the nature of evil that is written to be felt with every lash of violence, every heinous act, and every fearful rumour streaming through the town of Gibbeah. It is set in Jamaica in 1957 – five years before the nation gained its independence from the UK – but the storytelling has an Old Testament resonance. Contemporary life barely intrudes on Gibbeah, an iniquitous town that is not so far removed from Sodom and Gomorrah, where animals are born with ungodly deformations and where unnatural, bestial, sexually perverse, acts go unpunished.
The opening scene is filmic in its lean, vivid description: a flock of doves swoops down to attack the damned, which in this case is the entire townsfolk; then, a woman cuts off her lover's penis and talks – raves – in a man's voice. In this second image the "spirit of witchcraft" is invoked that will course through the rest of the book.
The duel between good and evil is channelled through two key figures – Hector Bligh and Lucas York; both men-of-the-cloth, and both having harnessed their own forms of obeah, or Jamaican voodoo, though the town quickly comes to see one pastor as the Hope and the Light, the other as the Darkness. Pastor Bligh is the latter old soak, the "rum preacher" whose congregation lost faith in him long before he was deposed by Lucas. This dashing young newcomer, dressed head to toe in black, is the self-styled Apostle, as he comes to be known. He is also the charismatic zealot who has come to "do the Lord's work".
Their battle can be seen to play out several, specific parables: that of religious mania and cultish following of Christian revival movements that in 1978, culminated in the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Also that of Jamaican pre-independence history, and the power struggle between political figureheads of the late 1950s, which poled between extreme liberalism and conservatism.
But the most universal parable lies in the Apostle's rise to power. In his rise, we see the rise of other charismatic tyrants, from Adolf Hitler to Osama bin Laden, gained only with the complicity of the congregation that grants him domination over them; the congregation that then becomes "mesmerised" into committing fanatical acts of evil for this crazed leader. The Apostle spells out the town's complicity to Pastor Bligh, and the lure of the collective delusion that accompanies fanaticism: "Gibbeah would rather have my lies than your truth."
With every fist fight between Pastor Bligh and the Apostle, the stakes are raised and the scenes become more taut, epic, amped up – sometimes too much so – so the men appear to be made of rubber, living through every tremendous punch or kick, and their showdowns have an almost hammy Wild West quality. The redeeming factor is their "other worldliness"; neither of these men appear fully mortal, both endowed with magical qualities, and so they spring back to life, again and again.
If the opening scene of attacking doves has strains of biblical vengeance, it only gets more baroque. An old man is stoned to death, a decapitated head rolls off a decomposed body, boys are mutiliated, then murdered. There is a scene in which an unfaithful couple are whipped: "By the third lash we see that this really a happen. Is ten lick she fi get and by lick number six the leather cut through her back and her black skin turn red. By number eight lash she stop scream, but she start drip. By number ten her knee them buckle and she out..."
It resembles a whipping scene in James's second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009) in which Lilith, a Jamaican slave, is beaten by an overseer in a protracted and brutal scene. Yet unlike that assault, here, in John Crow's Devil, every act of violence appears mythic, not-quite-real in a not-quite-real town, so it loses the sting of The Book of Night Women, where the violence relates to the realities of the slave trade, or James's A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), where the violence relates to 1970s gangland Jamaica.
In these two subsequent books, violence serves to horrify and shock. Here it occupies a different space, where it is spectacle, both for the villagers, and for readers. Its filmic quality is so strong that images rise off the page (it is, unsurprisingly, optioned by a film company). Similarly, characters have edges of filmic melodrama too – the apostle's "robes blowing even though there was no wind", for example. James does, despite this, take us into the hearts of his characters. Most live in extreme states of suffering, but the two central female characters – Widow Greenfield and Lucinda, attached to either of the holy men – have the most tormented inner lives where the men remain remote, opaque, perhaps less human.
John Crow's Devil is undoubtedly breathtaking for its imagination and its storytelling, its 78 rejections mystifying, but there seems to be a baroque, spectacular side to the darkness in this book which is no longer there in his second and third. Gibbeah is a town where "funeral is spectacle", where public whipping turns out a crowd of adults and children who watch on, in awe.
Sex is just as visceral, trip-wired by the same twin dangers of pain, or death. It is linked to demon possession; bestiality abounds, and homosexuality is biblically referred to as sexual perversion. This aspect may be James's reflection on sexual prejudice in Jamaica and beyond, given his own sexuality and his public declaration that he left Jamaica, partly, to escape homophobia.
One of the strongest ideas of this novel comes in its blurring of good and evil. The two are never quite distinct: we know the Apostle parades as good but suspect him to embody evil; we know the Pastor's inactions of the past is tantamount to evil but we suspect him to be good. The battle between them might, in the end, not so much be a case of good Versus evil as one kind of evil Versus a lesser evil. Though the final parable of the book might be seen to be pointing out the dangers of organised religion, it is the more human desire to want a messiah – a charismatic leader –that poses the biggest risks for humanity. A new messiah rises just as one falls at the end, and we leave Gibbeah as doomed as it was at the beginning.
Oneworld, £8.99. Order at the discounted price of £8.54 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies