Sunday, May 17, 2009

Marlon James/THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN


In 1799, Lilith is a pretty 15-year-old mulatto slave at the Jamaican plantation Montpelier who has somehow managed to avoid being sent to work in the cane fields. Then, in one violent episode, Lilith is suddenly inducted into the darkest aspects of slave life, and begins to tap into her own darkness. The head house slave, a white-haired African-born woman named Homer, takes Lilith under her wing, and it is through Homer Lilith meets the other five night women who are planning the biggest slave rebellion in Jamaican history.

The Book of Night Women is an extraordinary read, but not an easy one. Marlon James is unsparing in the most gruesome details of plantation life, and there is no character, black or white, whose hand are not bloody by the end of the book. Honestly I would not recommend this book for the faint of heart, but I would recommend it to everyone else. I would also recommend you allow yourself time to read it so you can get lost in the language; James has written the book in spellbinding vernacular, and it's very difficult to read without hearing each word in your head quite deliberately.

Lilith herself is an often unlikable guide into James's vividly rendered world. She's violent and, while occasionally remorseful, capable of unspeakable things. Nevertheless the reader identifies with her with harrowing closeness. James follows Lilith through about two years of her life, from the time she learns she is the heartless overseer's daughter through her move to the big house, thought her first major mistake, the first scars on her back, and her "seasoning" at the hands of the young master's sadistic lady friend and her family. In between, Lilith sees the inhuman ways slaves lash out at one another as well as the horrific abuses inflicted by white people of every position. As Lilith watches herself develop deep feelings for her first tormentor, the lines between "good" and "bad" are broken down irreparably.

There's an argument to be made that reading good fiction on a historical subject is more valuable than reading a nonfiction book on the same subject, and The Book of Night Women is historical fiction at its most powerful and resonant. James offers a grim but fresh portrayal of Caribbean slavery, but he also creates a cast of characters so alive and nuanced that the book is also a riveting fiction experience for the reader. In the process, James poses the deepest psychological questions about loyalty, parenthood, sexuality, identity, and the many forms of human dependency.

An extraordinary and powerful novel, impossible to put down.

7 comments:

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks for the review. I've wanted to read this and will now add it to the TBR pile.

Leigh Russell said...

Sounds like a powerful read. I agree, reading historical fiction (assuming it's reasonably accurate) can give a far better insight into the past than factual accounts.

Chris Eldin said...

Wow.
I am not reading this one and Freddie's book back-to-back.

But this brings up a question that was raised on EA's blog about writers of color---I am wondering if the author is white or black. Since it's historical fiction I don't know (for me) if it makes a difference. But on EA's blog, I did say (or tried to) that I thought white writers writing a book about a contemporary black story wouldn't be able to capture the same sensory and emotional detail. It wouldn't feel as authentice to me.

I know that's a tangent, but I was surprised to find myself with this question as I read your review.

And I do agree with you---I wish schools would teach social studies with books like this, and not the dry textbook which leaves you with nothing after the test has been taken.

freddie said...

This sounds like a great read. Adding it to my general TBR list . . .

Diane said...

I've been wondering about this one; thanks for the post!

Sandra Gail Lambert said...

I just finished this novel - whew and wow. What Marlon James accomplishes so very well is that never for a second did I think he was having his characters do something in order to present historical facts.

moonrat said...

nicely put, Sandra.