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.