When should you read this book? In a colonial town, burdened by our cultural history.
The Book of Night Women is a novel by Marlon James. Marlon James? You say. ‘Isn’t that the guy that did A Brief History of Seven Killings? The one that won the Man Booker?’ And I would say, ‘Hot damn, I really need to read that book’. But yes, it is the same guy.
While I haven’t managed to get to Seven Killings yet, I have come across Marlon James before – I read John Crow’s Devil a couple of years ago.
What I loved about John Crow’s Devil was the way James intertwined a powerful human story with the cultural influences of dark magic and the ethnic history of his characters.
He manages to do the same with ‘The Book of Night Women’, telling the story of Lillith. Born into slavery on a sugar cane plantation, Lillith is born with bright green eyes, which terrify the rest of the slave population and render her an outsider, but one they treat with caution, afraid that it means that she has access to dark magic.
The story tells how she navigates life as a slave, enduring the treatment of the overseers and the plantation owners as well as developing her relationships with the other slaves.
Chief among these is Homer, a fierce woman who has suffered more than anyone at the hands of the whites – and who draws Lillith and a number of other female slaves into her plans for revenge.
What a joy it is to read a story with an incredibly complex, morally ambiguous woman as its lead. Leads, in fact – as the main characters in this story are all morally ambiguous women.
In fact, one of the premises of the story is that women have to be in charge of planning the demise of their overlords because men are simply not good enough at plotting, waiting, and keeping their heads. True dat, sisters.
The moral ambiguity of the characters is one of the most satisfying elements of the novel. While there are certainly two sides of the fence (largely, black characters on one and white characters on the other), neither is good or bad.
Shades of grey
The white overseers (Humphrey Wilson, the owner, Robert Quinn, his best friend and the slave overseer, and Miss Isobel Roget, Humphrey’s love interest) are countered by the leadership among the slaves, primarily Homer, Lillith and the remaining ‘Night Women’, Callisto, Gorgon and Pallas.
The whites all have a cruel streak, but we quickly see that Quinn in particular has a softer side. The Night Women have all been hardened by their dreadful treatment but their past lives are also laid bare; Homer is driven perhaps more by a desire to avenge the deaths of her two children than by a desire for a freedom which seems less and less probable as the book goes on. Lillith is ‘uppity’ – she’s a gobby teenager – but she is also capable of very dark acts.
One of the themes of the novel is personal morality and accountability. Take Robert Quinn, the overseer who whips slaves if they misbehave, whilst clearly not having the stomach to enjoy it (unlike Humphrey and Isobel).
I loved the building of Quinn’s character, at once capable of great tenderness while simultaneously leaning towards cruelty, simply beacause these are the rules of engagement between blacks and whites on the estate. His sense of morality is a conundrum you could spend quite a bit of time on.
Bringing the plantation to life
James has a talent for setting the scene which I enjoyed as much here as I did with John Crow’s Devil. His depiction of late 1700s Jamaica is evocative and rich.
Plus, the story is written as if it were narrated by a slave, so in a kind of pidgin English. At first, this was tricky to get into, but then began to seem totally natural and helped to draw me in.
It reminded me a bit of reading A Clockwork Orange, which is written completely in Nadsat (a kind of Russian inflected slang) – at first it seems unintelligible but by the end you feel like part of the crew.
One of the most fascinating elements of the story is how dark magic, ‘Obeah’, is interwoven. This is where it seemed to me that James was migrating towards magic realism; curses work without fail, and Lillith is visited by a ‘night woman’ of her own, a shadowy figure who seems to portend either death or Lillith’s direct involvement in it.
These magical elements are woven through the story in a way that seems totally natural and simply reflective of the environment they are in. I’m a huge fan of magic realism as a genre anyway so I was always going to love this!
Overall I’d give The Book of Night Women a…I loved it for its atmosphere, complex characters and great story. A genuinely impressive piece of literary fiction.
Next up… Tangerine, by Christine Mangan!