The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: February 19, 2009
Format: ARC, 432 pages
When I picked up The Book of Night Women, I had no intention reading it in earnest. I intended to flip through, read a page or two as a preview, and then move on to preview the rest of books that I had stacked in front of me. But, with Lilith’s story I was immediately drawn in and could not put the book down. James’ novel is a substantial read, yet I breezed through it in a few short days.
Lilith has grown up in a cabin on the edge of the Montpelier Estate for as long as she can remember. She has indifferent Circe for a mother, and Tantalus, a half mad slave for a father, and a life that holds few surprises. Lilith’s life changes one morning when she kills a john jumper (a field slave who acted as assistant overseer, keeping other field slaves in check) who has attacks her in her cabin before she is to report to work. In order to escape punishment for her crime, she is taken in and hidden in the cellar of the plantation owner’s house by Homer, who has been managing things for years.
While working alongside the women there, Lilith becomes involved in the secret meetings of the night women who want to use her in a dangerous plan to take over the island from White plantation owners. Secrets, betrayal and complicated love affairs abound in this coming of age slave rebellion drama set against the backdrop of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Lilith has to make terrible decisions as she finds out the truth about her parentage, and weighs the high prices of both revenge and love.
I was blown away by James’s novel. I’ve never read a fictional slave narrative with as much violence, passion and bite to it. The language was harsh. The women spoke to each other with a jarring venom and venality that was in addition to the master and slave dynamic and manner of speaking, which was of course brutal. The Book of Night Women is filled with the patois of the island, and the story is relayed by a mysterious narrator that I kept trying to place throughout my reading. The voice was amazing to me. It’s richness and consistency was intriguing and disturbing all at the same time. It was a little distracting because I so wanted to know who was telling the story, and I kept looking for clues to figure it out!
Lilith is a fiercely complex character and I didn’t always like her—she was young and could be a little whiny, bratty and hard-headed, and not to mention incredibly naive at times. I was often appalled by her actions, but there were so many shades of gray that I wondered whether she could have chosen differently if her aim was to survive, or even what I would do if faced with her circumstances. So many complex and disturbing situations in the novel illustrate the inhumane results of slavery, that peculiar institution, and there was absolutely no clear right or wrong way characters could choose to deal with the devastation of their lives. I had a lot of back and forth with myself as I was reading, and often did so with my mouth hanging open from shock, among other intense emotions. Highly recommended, but definitely not for the faint of heart.
More on Marlon James and The Book of Night Women: Marlon James on The Book of Night Women click here. (It’s really interesting, and no spoilers!)
Visit his website here.