Sunday, July 5, 2015
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Published February 2010 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: both the audio book and hardcover copy were purchased by me
It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they- and she-will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings, desires, and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman, and risks becoming the conspiracy's weak link.
If my review could be just one word, it would be devastating. Or maybe brilliant. Or, perhaps, overwhelming. So, yeah, maybe one word won't suffice.
I've studied American History, I've read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Dolan Valdez-Perkins. But I have never read anything as powerfully written about slavery as The Book of Night Women. James does an exceptional job of capturing the hopelessness and claustrophobic nature of Montpelier Estate where Lilith grows up an unloved orphan.
It is not until Lilith comes of age to be of use on the plantation that she fully grasps the horrific future that awaits her. She is saved by the head house slave after a she commits a shocking act to save herself from field work. But life for Lilith will never be the same. Outside of the house, the "johnny jumpers" are always looking to punish her. Inside the house, the other slaves look down on her. And everyone is looking to use her in some way. Lilith doesn't always act in her own best interest, alienating those who might be her allies and angering those she can least afford to anger. She is conceited, impulsive, and convinced that she is better than the other slaves because her green eyes mean her father was white.
For the squeamish, this is not a book for you. It is brutal and shocking and, had I been reading it in print, I might have had to put it down and walk away from it more than once. We are all well aware that slavery was a barbarous practice but nothing I have ever read before comes close to capturing just how sadistic and cruel it was. James does not spare the slaves, who were often equally brutal to each other, nor are most of his white characters entirely one-dimensional.
I listened to this book on audio. Having passed along my hardcover book before I started reading it, I can't speak for how James' writing might have flowed from the page; it would almost certainly have been more difficult to read given that the patois narration is not always easy to understand. On audio, it is simply breathtaking. Robin Miles perfectly captures the dialect and accent and does a fine job of differentiating the many different characters, both male and female. Audiobook fans, I highly recommend this one.
I believe I first learned about this book on NPR and have owned the hardcover book for years. But it's a book that languished on my shelves in no small part to the fact that it gained so little attention in the press or blogging world. What a shame. I am not alone in being impressed with The Book of Night Women:
“Both beautifully written and devastating…Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable— even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.”
— The New York Times Book Review
“The narrative voice is so assured and the descriptions so detailed and believable that one can’t help being engaged. This is a book to love. . . . The Book of Night Women is hard to pick up, even harder to put down . . . and it deserves to be read.”
“The Book of Night Women is a searing read, full of blood, tears, and the stench of misery. It’s barbaric and ancient, but also familiar in the ways that people, consumed by their differences and divisions, easily overlook all that binds them— the desire for independence, the right to a civilized life, and the need to give and receive love.”
—The Boston Globe
“The Book of Night Women is not merely a historical novel. It is a book as heavily peopled and dark as the night in this isolated and brutal place. It is a canticle of love and hate.”
—Los Angeles Times