Lilith was born in 1785 in Jamaica, on a grand plantation called Montpelier—“a black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see.” For a few years, she runs around with the other children, even playing with the little white girl from the nearby Coulibre Estate. But as the narrator of Marlon James’s novel says, “a slave woman fate write before she born,” and Lilith must soon go to work. She narrowly escapes the torments of field labor, but as a house slave, she finds torments of an altogether different kind. But she also finds sisterhood of a sort, and love of a kind—all of these blessings tainted by the slavery she cannot escape. Or can she?
Lilith’s story is every bit as harrowing as you might expect, given her circumstances. Lilith and her fellow slaves are beaten, raped, tortured, and abused in ways I could scarcely imagine. But what makes The Book of Night Women remarkable is not the ways it reveals the horrors of slave life, but the way it delves into the complexity of slavery itself, both for the slaves and for the masters.
I could spend a lot of time telling you about the plot of the book—about the brave women who conspired to bring down the plantation, about the surprisingly gentle overseer who becomes fascinated with Lilith, about Lilith’s personal acts of rebellion against the slave owners who abuse her and the slaves who attempt to direct her steps. However, the plot isn’t what gives this book its power. The power is in the characters and the way they interact in this time and place where history has put them.
It would be easy enough to pen a story of slavery that dwells on the evil masters and overseers and the put-upon slaves, but James doesn’t do that. It would also be easy enough to plant a couple of nice white people and a couple of cruel slaves, just to make an attempt at breaking types, but James doesn’t do that either. His approach is far more risky and interesting. Practically every character is to some degree a victim of the system, but even the most put-upon victims have their cruel streaks. This is a novel about individuals corrupted by an evil institution. How badly they are corrupted and how it affects them is where the variation lies.
Lilith is of course the heroine of the novel, and her own mental and emotional struggles show just how deeply being a slave invades the psyche even of someone as intelligent and naturally spirited as she. Early in the novel, she muses on how whiteness equals beauty, and she finds it difficult to join her sisters in plotting against the plantation owners. Yet even she has a breaking point. How will she respond to being broken? Will she rise up against her chains or bow under their weight?
Robert Quinn, the Irish overseer, is just as complicated—or rather, the way he relates to Lilith is complicated. Quinn himself sometimes reads too much like a prototypical budding white savior who’s uncomfortable with slavery but hasn’t figured out what to do about it, so he goes along with it. He’s the sort of character who could be easily included to show that the book isn’t about hatred of the white man. The thing is, in some ways Quinn is most hateful when he’s being kind. He wants to see past color, but what he fails to see is that as long as slavery exists, love between a white man and a slave woman will always have the taint of coercion. Can he find a way to break past this?
For me, one of the most interesting and complex characters was Miss Isobel Roget. Almost from the moment we meet her, Miss Isobel is depicted as snobby, vain, and vicious toward all slaves. She brags to Humphrey Wilson, the owner of Montpelier, that as a Creole woman who has lived all her life in Jamaica, she knows better than anyone how to handle slaves, and the very best way is to show them whose boss at every possible opportunity. She’s precisely the kind of character you’d want to hate. Until…
When Miss Isobel suffers her own personal tragedy, we see the vulnerability under all that bravado, and it’s impossible not to feel sympathy at her need to escape her pain and the desperate lengths she goes to do so. Plus, as a woman, she faces her own kinds of oppression, being viewed as a whore for taking pleasure in sex, for example. Lilith herself shows sympathy for Miss Isobel late in the novel, much to Robert Quinn’s horror. What impressed me is that James makes us feel for Isobel without taking away her cruel streak. She doesn’t have some turnaround moment where she sees the error of her ways. Instead, James reveals her to be a human being living in an inhuman world. Who knows what she would be in another place and time? Who knows what any of us would be in hers?
As wonderful as these characters were, several of the others were equally interesting, and I would have been happy to learn more about them. Homer and Circe in particular had compelling stories to tell. Most of the titular night women, a group of six slave women planning a revolt, weren’t as distinct from one another as they could be. James tried to give each one a story or some quality to make her stand out, but they don’t appear quite often enough to feel like complete individuals. It’s a minor problem that only really bothered me toward the end of the book, when the various individuals’ actions become important to Lilith’s fate.
The complicated characterization and ethics of the book did, in my mind, sometimes cross the line from satisfyingly complex to just plain confusing. This was especially true in the treatment of sex—specifically the sexualization of the slave women early in the book. Over and over again, there are references to the development of Lilith’s breasts or to the men’s dangling genitals. To some degree, this was valuable as a way of showing how the women are viewed as sex objects, servicing the master’s needs being just one of their duties. The men, too, are valued for the capacities as breeders. If this is how they’re viewed, it stands to reason that the slaves will start to value themselves according to their sexual potential. I’m just not sure it would show up in their thinking to the degree that it did in the book, and the objectification of the women in this way was particularly uncomfortable when coming from a male author. This isn’t a book to make readers comfortable, so that may be all to the good.
The Book of Night Women is written in a Jamaican dialect. I listened to the audiobook, which is beautifully read by Robin Miles. It only took a few minutes for me to sink right into the accent, and most of the unfamiliar terms were easy enough to figure out in context. I imagine that the experience would be different in print, and I wonder whether I would have appreciated the print book nearly as much.
This is the third book I’ve read this year by a Caribbean writer, and all three have been wonderful. (The White Women on the Green Bicycle and A Small Place were the others.) Before this year, I think the only book I’d read been an even vaguely Caribbean author was the also wonderful Small Island by Andrea Levy, born in the UK to Jamaican parents. It seems I’m developing a taste for Caribbean literature, so if anyone has suggestions for more, I’d welcome them (with the caveat that, as is usual for me, I may take years to get to them).
Note: This book was recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians in their response to The Help. Amy of Amy Reads and Amanda of Opinions of a Wolf have started a project to read all the books on the list, so if this book appeals to you, you might want to consider joining their discussion October 8.