I read The Book of Night Women by Marlon James a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been putting off writing about it — not because I don’t have anything to say, but because it’s such an interesting and complex book that I feared I wouldn’t do it justice. If I begin to ramble, go read Teresa’s review from 2011, and certainly, certainly read the book: it speaks very well for itself.
The novel begins with the birth of Lilith, “a black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see.” Lilith is a slave on Montpelier Estate on Jamaica in 1785. As the narrator says, “every negro walk in a circle,” and by the time she is fourteen, Lilith becomes a house slave. Here she experiences and witnesses torments I cannot even begin to imagine — beatings, rapes, torture, abuse, the destruction of family and of self. But she also forms connections — a different sort of family — and finds a strange kind of love, and becomes unthinkably stronger.
This combination of terrible negatives and undeniable positives is the great strength of The Book of Night Women. The plot (an intricate plan of subversion, overthrow, revenge, and eventual bitter chaos) is well done, but it’s almost beside the point. What James does in this novel is to reject binary representations — black/white; master/ slave; good/ bad — and to represent the milieu of slavery, for everyone involved, with as much complexity as he can. There is no doubt whatsoever that slavery is evil: the reduction of a human being to chattel can be nothing else. The way its corrupting influence appears, however, and to what extent it can be resisted or embraced, makes fascinating reading.
Take, for instance, the contempt and cruelty with which Humphrey Wilson, master of Montpelier, and his overseers treat the slaves. The smallest infraction is answered with lashings, torture, and other punishments that are often fatal; every interaction is fraught with the intimate knowledge that Humphrey can bring pain and death on a whim. You might suspect, in a less complex book, that the slaves would unite against the white master, and join hands in fellow-feeling. Not so. The house slaves feel superior to the field slaves; the women feel superior to the men; the men feel superior to the women; women with seniority hiss insults at women lower in the hierarchy than they are. Every lash, every insult the master hands out finds its way down the line in the form of loss of dignity, loss of self, hatred of the master, of course, but also hatred of self and others who have no dignity and who submit to force majeure. It’s poisonous and crippling, and James portrays it painfully and brilliantly.
No one is only contemptible, only wise; only cruel. Humphrey loves his mother and weeps for days over her grave before committing an unimaginable atrocity; Homer, a slave, is brave and witty and kind, and she wants to kill all the white people on the plantation, even the children. It is significant, too, that James avoids binaries in his characters’ ancestry as well as their motivations. Everyone is mixed. Lilith’s father’s identity is a mystery for most of the novel, but her eyes are green. Robert O’Quinn, the overseer, is Irish, as contemptible to some of the British as a slave. Isobel, Humphrey’s lover, claims she has the West Indies in her blood, and she knows far more about island beliefs and customs than she should as a proper white woman. And of course, there are the names: the slaves on Montpelier are all given the names of Greek figures — Homer, Andromeda, Tantalus, Callisto, Pallas. All but Lilith, the first wife of Adam. The strange mix of antiquity and origin and destiny mingle in the book; I’d have to read it again to trace the precise ways James follows these paths.
As you may have seen from the tiny snippets of quotations I’ve used, James writes the book entirely in dialect, or at least nonstandard English. It’s a risky choice, but in the end it works very well. The voice of the narrator is powerful and matter-of-fact, and the shift into this not-quite-standard language slowed me down as a reader and made me take in scenes I might otherwise have skimmed over. This points up one of the strong messages of the text: that reading and writing are tools of transcendence. Homer teaches Lilith to read, using Joseph Andrews as a textbook (it’s one of the few times genuine laughter appears in the book):
Lilith begin to see how reading and writing work and how you can write a thing and give it to a nigger and nobody can hear what she say even if could only write that t-h-e-b-l-a-c-k-c-a-t-s-i-t-o-n-t-h-e-m-a-t. Writing be silent talking and Lilith like to have something that nosy niggers can’t overhear. But more so every time Lilith learn a word the cellar seem not so dark.
Later, near the end of the book, Joseph Andrews reappears and Lilith passes on her knowledge, how to read but especially of how to write.
That was the most forbidden of thing and it still be so, but there be no man, black or white, that can stop her now. But she didn’t teach me for me but for her, for when it’s time to write her song she have somebody true to be her witness.
This book is a witness — witness to the idea that when we live in injustice, we perpetrate it, and when we escape it, we do better. It was a very painful book to read — it reminded me in some ways of Edward P. Jones’s The Known World — and it took a lot of authorial risks. I’m so glad Teresa had me read it, and I hope you’ll be interested enough to read it too.