The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

I came to read Marlon James in January 2015, as many people at Book Riot were talking about how amazing his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was.  I thought, Hmm.  A novel about as assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica and Jamaican crime lords – sounds interesting.  It took me a week or so to settle into the heavy Jamaican patois of many of the characters, but once I did, I was HOOKED.  It was a novel with an energy and vitality I had rarely come across before, and I came to care even about the characters who were VERY BAD people.  It ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2015, and I wrote glowingly about it here.  I knew I had to read Marlon James again.  It only took me another 18 months!

But having finished The Book of Night Women this week, I can now safely say that Marlon James has vaulted onto my Favorite Authors list, and I will now read his other novel, John Crow’s Devil, and will seek out everything he writes in the future.

IMG_3587The Book of Night Women is set in Jamaica in the early 1800s on a sugarcane plantation called Montpelier.  The heroine of the novel, to whom we are introduced on the first page, at her birth, is named Lilith.  Her very young mother dies giving birth to her.  She has the most striking green eyes, with an energy that makes most of the slaves want to “leave her in the bush and make the land take her back.”  But the overseer, Jack Wilkins, gets two of the slaves, Circe and Tantalus, to take her in and raise her.  This is a story of Lilith coming of age, harnessing the “uppity” spirit she had from birth, and making connections with the other strong women on the plantation, namely Homer, the venerable head house slave.  But it is also a story of the violence and degradation of slavery in general.  This is probably the bloodiest book I’ve ever read.  However, it is not gratuitous violence – it simply reflects the truth, the awful inhumanity of not only the whites in power, but the “Johnny Jumpers,” black slaves who helped the overseer keep everyone in line, and the “Maroons,” free black mercenaries who live in the bush and capture runaways for profit.

I don’t want to talk much about the plot of the novel for fear of revealing too much, but through Homer, Lilith comes to meet other women with similar green eyes and fearless souls, and among them there is a rebellion plot afoot.  We also meet the young Master of the plantation, Humphrey, and his best friend/right hand man, an Irishman named Robert Quinn.  There is an interesting dynamic about how negatively the English planters viewed the Irish, and Quinn is always cognizant of his second-class whiteness.  He figures prominently in Lilith’s life later in the novel.

There is a pulsating energy to James’s writing, propelling the reader further into the darkness of the narrative.  It was a world that was almost too cruel to believe, yet I know that these things actually happened.  The slaves spoke in the Jamaican patois yet this was not problematic for me; I think it lends an authenticity to the narrative.  Maybe I was more primed for it having read A Brief History.  This novel enthralled me totally, even if the subject matter was hard reading.  It was simply brilliant, and I think everyone should read it.  I’m going to end with some quotations so that you can get a feel for the language and James’s talent.

Lilith, while watching a slave auction in Kingston:

Lilith wonder what running through bush with no chain on you foot or dog coming after you feel like.  And what it feel like to know all of that, then lose it.  Do losing feel different from never having?  Do a captured nigger be a different nigger?  Lilith gone from perplex to melancholy.  She surprise that she never talk to a Africa man or woman before.  Except Homer.  And even Homer, who talk more Africa tongue than most, still don’t talk ’bout the Africa land much.

Homer, speaking to Lilith when she begins secretly teaching her to read:

Me not nobody nigger.  Learn this, when you can make out word, nothing the massa can do will surprise you.  A nigger, he no got nothing.  He got nothing.  But when you can make out a word, that is something indeed.  You know how long me know that Mass Humphrey was coming?  You think ’bout that.  When a bigger can read, she can plan, if is even for just a minute.  Make me tell you something else ’bout reading.  You see this?  Every time you open this you get free.  Freeness up in here and nobody even have to know you get free but you.

(Book number four of my #10 Books of Summer.)

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31 thoughts on “The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

  1. Ups…. I posted the last one by mistake. Anyway, I had similar experience with ‘Brief history….’. I wasn’t sure about it, it took me some time to get into the rhythm of Jamaican English, but then I just got it and it was great! I checked out James’s other books, but really wasn’t sure if I will like them. But thanks to your review I know I shouldn’t be afraid of reading James’s other books.

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    1. I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed Brief History. I feel like if you liked that one, you will like this one. It’s similarly vibrant and compelling, only set in a different time and place. Both books have brutal violence, so you should be able to handle this one as well. Thanks for reading my post and commenting!

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  2. I absolutely adored this book and have recommended it many times. It’s brutal, yes, but so complex and important. I appreciated the many different angles James took, showing how slavery wrecks everyone it touches in one way or another. I listened to it as an audiobook and hearing the dialect was amazing. I think it enhanced my appreciation to experience it in that format. Glad you loved it, too!

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    1. Oh my goodness, Teresa, I can only imagine how powerful the audio book version would be. Yes, I really did appreciate the complexity of his portrayal of the awful system of slavery was. No one escaped being capable of brutal acts or having degradation heaped upon them. I am just in awe of Marlon James! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  3. Your review is so enthusiastic I really feel I ought to try his books! But truthfully, I couldn’t stand them if a lot of it was written in that patois. Especially the second quote, I had to read three times before I had a real sense of its meaning. I fear I might be too lazy a reader to struggle through. Has he written any in standard English, do you know?

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    1. He’s written three books so far, and the two I’ve read are both in the Jamaican patois. I’m not sure about his first novel yet, I intend to read it. Truthfully, I had a much more difficult time with the vernacular in Brief History than with this one. You may surprise yourself once you get started, FictionFan. You’d probably get used to it pretty quickly. Maybe an audio version would help? In any case, thanks for reading my review!

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    2. If you like audiobooks, you might try that if you’re concerned about the patois. Once I got used to it, it was not hard to understand. The expressiveness of the reader helped me get the sense of it well enough to know what was going on, and the fact that the audio moves at its own pace kept me from worrying over each phrase I didn’t fully understand.

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  4. Great post! I think I need to prioritize this one. I needed time to recover from A Brief History but this sounds equally amazing in a different way. Enjoyed hearing your thoughts.

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  5. Every time I read a glowing comment about A Brief History of Seven Killings I am embarrassed that I couldn’t finish the story…every time. Perhaps I didn’t give it enough time and was not persistent, as you were. I read about 70 pages in a couple of days and was discouraged by how dense and complicated the story and language were. Sigh.
    I’m sure I’ve said this to you before, but I want to read The Book of Night Women first before I return to Seven Killings. I own both, so it’s just a matter of carving out the time. You have convinced me that Night Women is the right choice as my introduction to James’s writing.

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    1. Don’t be embarrassed! Hush that talk! It just may not be the book for you. Or maybe it wasn’t the right time. Or maybe an audio book would work better for you. In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Night Women.

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  6. I haven’t read James’s work yet, but I know what you mean about learning a dielectric and then reading it easily. Lots of Irvine Welsh books got me super comfortable in Scottish dialect, and many, many African American novels made the dialect of black folks Reconstruction era easier for me.

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