Wednesday, July 18, 2012

REVIEW: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Synopsis (from Amazon): The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. 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 and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link.

Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion—between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently—and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.

My Thoughts:  This book was definitely interesting.  A week has passed since I finished reading it and I'm still not 100% sure on my feelings on it.  Reminiscent of Toni Morrison, The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a green eyed slave who loses her mother in child birth, doesn't know the identity of her father, and is sent to live with Circe-a woman who doesn't give Lilith much in the way of affection and who seeks to dampen the young girl's free spirit whenever she gets the chance.  Lilith is not subjected to the back breaking labor of a field slave and begins to think she is meant to live life on a grander scale than everyone else.  Because she conveys the attitude that she thinks she is superior to those around her, she makes enemies amongst the other slaves.  They also sense a dark undercurrent in Lilith which makes them fear her.  After one particularly brutal episode which is meant to put Lilith in her place, she flees to the safety of the big house and comes under the care of Homer.  Homer sees something in Lilith and seeks to use her for her own means but Lilith still dreams of a life beyond that of an ordinary slave and it is the pursuit of this that will lead to disastrous consequences.

Two things stuck out to me with this book right away.  James uses authentic dialect for the characters which is very hard to get used to. 

“She not black, she mulatto. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto. Maybe she be family to both and to hurt white man just as bad as hurting black man…..Maybe if she start to think that she not black or white, then she won’t have to care about neither man’s affairs. Maybe if she don’t care what other people think she be and start think about what she think she be, maybe she can rise over backra and nigger business, since neither ever mean her any good. Since the blood that run through her both black and white, maybe she be her own thing. But what thing she be?” 

This is how the whole book is written and while it was hard to not be stopping to correct grammar in my head throughout the whole reading, writing the book in authentic dialect did help immerse myself more fully in the world the author portrays.  That brings me to the second thing I noticed-Marlon James does not hold back in depicting the life of the slaves in 18th century Jamaica.  Their lives are full of violence and brutality-the beatings, rapes, and mistreatment of the slaves by the whites living on the plantation is shocking and at times made for uncomfortable reading. The slaves use some very coarse language in the book as well.  Lilith is also not a very likable character and she at times displays some pretty ruthless and selfish behavior.  Still there are moments I felt for her.  The book also hints around instances of black magic and the author does a good job of conveying the tension build up with the characters in the novel.  You know a conspiracy is afoot and something big is going to happen eventually.  That also brings me to the problem I had with the book.   I spent the whole time waiting for things in the book to reach a breaking point but it seemed to take forever to get there.  Most of the book if focused on what happens with Lilith and it made for slower reading because I didn't like her all that much.  Also, Lilith's proposed role in the plans of Homer and her cohorts was kind of fuzzy-it was hard to determine what exactly they wanted from her. Yes, she has a dark side and is capable of violence but she also displays some flaws which would make her more of a liability than an asset.

The book excels at showing the ugly and inhumane side of slavery during this time.  I appreciated it because it was thought provoking and different. I'm not sure if it was the unsettling events in the book or the dialect that kept tripping me up but this one falls in the like but didn't love category for me.

 This book is from my own personal library


  1. I REALLY struggle when dialect is used in books...not sure this one is for me. But really want to read Someone Knows My Name by Lawerence Hill...sound like similar books.

  2. Someone Knows My Name was a fantastic book! I gave it four stars and I think it made my top 10 list for 2009.

    1. Wow!! Awesome! It's my next book club choice. Thanks!

  3. You've grabbed my interest. Thanks for a review that went inside in a genuinely thoughtful way. This is a moment and place in history I know nothing about, so it appeals to me to give this book a read.

  4. This had been on my list for awhile. I wasn't aware that it was written in dialect, I don't knpw is I am up for that right now.

    Evans for sharing your review.