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.
The 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.)