A haunting, brutal story about slavery in Jamaica in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, and of Montpelier, the plantation she grows up on. The story is told in Patois, from Lilith’s point of view. This is not a book for the squeamish—Marlon James does not gloss over the brutality of slavery and of that period in Jamaican history.
Blood runs through the book like a thread. The entire first paragraph—about Lilith’s birth—is about blood. Blood that “don’t got no colour”. Because in a slave’s life there is so much blood that it “soon come to pass when red no different from white or blue or black or nothing”. Lilith’s mother is a 14-year-old girl, who loses too much blood and dies cursing the child and the father. And that is how the reader is introduced to Lilith: the black baby with green eyes, eyes that “light up the room but not like sunlight”, which makes the women around her regard her with fear.
And they have reason. Lilith grows up to be a young woman, in some ways like a lot of young women, with the insecurities and crushes that come with adolescence. But she also has a dark power in her that surprises and scares her. The first glimpse of this is when a man tries to rape her and she kills him, almost without realizing what she is doing. Homer, who works at the plantation owner’s house (the big house), sees this power, decides to take Lilith under her wing and trains her to work up at the house. Homer, like several characters in the book, has her own closely guarded secrets.
The plantation is run by Mrs. Wilson, the widow of the plantation owner, with help from her brutal overseer, Jack Wilkins (who is actually Lilith’s father). Things change when the Wilsons’ son, Humphrey, returns from London with an Irishman, Robert Quinn. He fires Wilkins and appoints Quinn as overseer.
But revolution is brewing in the country, and there are several slave revolts, unsuccessful for the most part. Homer inducts Lilith into a group of slave women (the Night Women), all daughters of Jack Wilkins, who are plotting a revolt at Montpelier. Because they are half-black and half-white, they feel they have a special power that sets them apart.
Lilith becomes the weakest link in the chain. Robert Quinn falls in love with her and takes her to live with him. He treats her more like an equal than any of the other white people do. Being Irish, he understands a little of the discrimination. Lilith is suspicious of him—he was after all, the overseer who did nothing to stop Lilith being whipped—but she starts to trust him.
When the slaves’ revolt at Montpelier does come, it is bloody. There are no innocents here, and no one’s motives are pure. There isn’t any simple black and white in this book, just a murky shade of grey. But there is no question about the brutality and the impunity of the white slave owners and their henchmen, both white and black. I thought I could deal with violence but this is another level altogether. There is a lot of graphic detail, but James is not exaggerating—the brutality described here did happen. And the worst thing is that it was all perfectly legal in the laws of the land.
The Book of Night Women is an extremely powerful book. I finished reading it several weeks ago, and it still haunts me. The characters are so vivid, including some of the minor ones, that I know they will stay with me for a long time. Marlon James writes from a woman’s point of view and gets it pitch perfect—so much so that when I was reading it, I kept forgetting that it had been written by a man. Telling the story in Patois is a brilliant stroke. As a reader, you don’t get to stand outside the story, but are plunged straight into it. Read this book—it won’t be an easy read in any way, but once you start, you won’t be able to put it down. And it will move you.