The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Genre: Historical fiction
Content warning: graphic depictions of violence, torture, sexual content, sexual assault, language
The Book of Night Women (2009, 448 pages) is the second novel by Jamaican writer, Marlon James. The book won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and an NAACP Image Award. The Book of Night Women follows Lilith, the novel’s protagonist, from her birth in 1785 to her older years, with a majority of the novel taking place during Lilith’s teen years in the lead up to an island wide slave revolt in 1801. Lilith is born on the Montpelier Estate, a sugar plantation on the east coast of Jamaica, “wash in crimson and squealing” as if she had “just depart heaven to come to hell”. Born to a 13-year old enslaved girl under brutal circumstances, Lilith’s mother curses her and the white overseer who raped her before dying shortly after giving birth. When the other enslaved women see baby Lilith’s green eyes that “light up the room, but not like sunlight”, they react with fear and trembling because “girl like Lilith don’t born with green eye because God feel to be extra kind”. Instead, they believe Lilith’s green eyes, in combination with her pedigree as the daughter of a murderous, sadistic white overseer and a mother who cursed her at birth, is a bad omen and that Lilith will be trouble.
Orphaned Lilith is raised by an enslaved man and woman and even as a child gains a reputation for being “too spirited” because of her quickness to anger. Later, when she is 14, a “Johnny-jumper” (an enslaved man who works under the white overseer and is allowed to brutalize other enslaved people) named Paris attempts to rape her but Lilith pours hot tea on his face and then kills him with his own sword. But the episode unlocks something dark inside Lilith and for the first time, Lilith feels “the darkness…[t]rue darkness and true womanness that make man scream”. After the murder, Lilith is whisked away to the main house by Homer, an enslaved woman who works in the main house and who is respected and feared by the other slaves. In the main house, Homer teaches Lilith to read and protects her from retaliation for Paris’ murder from other enslaved people on the plantation. But unbeknownst to Lilith, Homer has a plan for her, one that involves honing Lilith’s darkness and harnessing it for an island wide slave revolt that Homer is planning with Lilith’s half-sisters, the Night Women.
Lilith rejects the Night Women’s invitations to become an active participant in the planning and execution of the revolt because she has bigger plans for her life. Believing that her green eyes and white father make her better than other enslaved people, Lilith hatches a plan to become the mistress of the plantation owner. But after the plantation owner allows Lilith to be brutally punished for a simple mistake, Lilith becomes known as “the woman with the quilt on her back” and is eventually sent to work at a deteriorating estate called Coulibre, where the violence directed at the enslaved is even more cruel than on Montpelier Estate. At Coulibre, Lilith’s sharp tongue gets her into trouble with the new master and not wanting to become the estate’s newest victim, Lilith defends herself with horrific consequences for Coulibre.
Then after returning to Montpelier, Lilith becomes the mistress of the plantain’s Irish overseer, Robert Quinn. At first, Lilith hates Quinn as she blames him for the scars on her back but as a type of domesticity develops between them, her feelings toward Quinn changes, “making Lilith forget that the white man be a monster” and we see Quinn’s feelings toward her deepen: “Lilith, do ye think there could ever come a day when you call me Robert?”. Quinn tries to convince Lilith that despite the reality that he is an overseer and she is enslaved, inside his bedroom “I’m just a man and yer just a girl”. But Lilith never loses sight of the fact that she “must be sensible ‘bout white man behaviour for it set like the sun and sunset always different on any given day.” In the remainder of the novel, we see Lilith attempt to reconcile her feelings for Quinn with her desire not to betray the Night Women, a balancing act that is fated to end tragically.
There are so many things I loved about The Book of Night Women. For instance, although the novel was a very difficult read due to its harrowing depiction of slavery’s brutality and the routine sexual abuse enslaved women endured, James’ description matches the historical record in former British colonies like Jamaica, where slavery existed on a much larger scale than in the U.S. And, although the 1801 rebellion that James writes about is fictional, there were many slave revolts in the British Caribbean colonies and, even more revolts that never came to fruition including the Tobago Slave Conspiracy of 1801 . The threat of a revolt was ever present on the island because “there be thirty-three negro for every white in Jamaica”, a fact that drove a lot of the plantation owners’ extreme cruelty: “White man know that there never be a safe day in the colony. So they whip we.” Even more unnerving to the island’s white population was the knowledge that if a revolt ever got out of hand, it may be weeks before help would arrive from British troops stationed on other islands.
Also, I loved the book’s use of Jamaican Patios in both the narrative and dialogue between characters. Jamaican Patios is an English-based creole language with heavy West African influences, with many words having an Akan origin, that remains the lingua franca of the island. Patois developed in the 17th century when enslaved people from West and Central Africa were exposed to, learned and nativized the vernacular and dialectal forms of English spoken by the slaveholders: British English, Scots, and Irish English. The simple explanation I always give is that Jamaican patios is how enslaved people learnt English. James’ use of Jamaica Patios added a lot of authenticity to the novel because Jamaican Patios is a very harsh language and it is an excellent vehicle through which the reader can begin to understand the harsh environment in which the characters lived. An example of the harshness of Jamaican Patios is the fact that there are no direct Jamaican Patios translations of phrases like “please” or “I love you” – a fact that would not surprise anyone who has read The Book of Women. But although the novel utilizes Jamaican Patios words, grammar, spelling and sentence structure, American readers will still be able to understand the book because James takes advantage of Jamaican Patios’ sociolinguistic variation, meaning some variants of Jamaican Patios are closer to English than others. For example, the Jamaican Patios spoken by Isobel, a white woman born on the island, is easily understandable, as is the Jamaican Patios Lilith uses to speak to Quinn and to other white people. Additionally, the rhythmic cadence of Jamaican Patios works well with the novel’s lyricism, even in the most violent passages.
Another thing I loved about the novel is the relationship between Lilith and Quinn. Attempting to write a “love” story between a white man and an enslaved woman is tricky and 9 times out of 10, writers get it wrong. Either the writer uses the unrealistic “enemies to lovers” trope found in romance novels, which feels icky because it sidesteps the power dynamic of slavery and that the woman has no choice. Or, the writer uses the “kindly master” trope, where the white man always had a soft spot for the enslaved woman in question, until eventually the enslaved woman falls in love with the master and they live as if they are man and wife in the great house. But fortunately, James does neither. I won’t get into the moral morass of whether it is possible for a white overseer and an enslaved woman to have a “real” relationship but James’ depiction of Robert and Lilith’s relationship, from how it started to how it progressed to how it ended, felt very realistic. Also, the fact that Robert Quinn is Irish adds another layer of authenticity to Lilith and Robert’s story, because the 2nd ethnic heritage that most Jamaicans claim after West African, is Irish.
But by far, the thing I loved most about The Book of Night Women is James’ characterization of the women in the novel. Lilith is a very complex character, she is vain and foolish, impetuous and ungrateful. Lilith is not the heroine you wish her to be and yet she is not unlikeable, but neither is it possible to feel indifference toward her as you read her thoughts, her motivations and her history – an orphan born under horrendous conditions, who is trying to gain some independence and dignity in the most undignified circumstances. Other women in the novel like Homer and Isobel are also very complex, well-written characters who illustrate the different ways slavery and a slave society grinds down all those live in it, especially women. With Homer, we see the pain and heartbreak that comes with Black motherhood and with Isobel, we see how the plantation society’s social structure, where Jamaican born white women are viewed as less desirable/marriageable than British born white women, can also ruin lives.
I honestly can’t think of anything I dislike about The Book of Night Women. I love this book so much and I think it is leaps and bounds better than the other slave narratives – The Underground Railroad and The Water Dancer – I have reviewed so far. I think Lilith is a far more authentic character than Hiram from The Water Dancer and much more compelling than Cora from The Underground Railroad. A review by Arifa Akbar compared Lilith to Lady Macbeth, a woman consumed by self-loathing and guilt. Another review by Kaiama Glover, stated that James wrote “in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own”. Glover goes on to say that James is able to “write the unspeakable – even the unthinkable” resulting in an “undeniable success”. And it is James’s ability to write the unthinkable so clearly that puts The Book of Night Women ahead of other slave narratives that I have read. James is able to use all components of the novel – the characters, the setting, the language, to weave a story that I found terrifying but unable to put down. But I think Sarah McNally sums up my feelings about The Book of Night Women best in her review: “This is a vast, deep book. Many chapters begin with the same two sentences: ‘Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.’ In trying to tell why this book should be read, I feel like I could walk in circles, to the well and back, and always my bucket would come up with a new reason.”
I unreservedly give The Book of Night Women my highest rating of 5 out of 5. I have so many pages bookmarked, and I enjoyed it so much that I have re-read many sections of the book multiple times. If you want to read a book that you will never forget, I highly, highly, recommend The Book of Night Women.