The Book of Night Women
Marlon James

Before we get started, a couple of notes:

  • This is not an all-inclusive review. Missing details and earlier thoughts can be found here.
  • The narrator makes frequent use of the n-word and the lesser n-word. However, it would be inappropriate for me to repeat them, so they’ve been asterisked out in the snippets quoted.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I know I’m always raving about the amazing books I’ve read, but this was unquestionably one of the best I’ve read this year. I haven’t really been doing rereads these last couple of years, with a few exceptions, but this is a book that needs to be read over and over again. This is a book that will never leave my shelf, because I am never letting it go.

The Book of Night Women is the story of Lilith, an Akan slave on a Jamaican plantation, as told by her daughter, Lovey Quinn. It’s a coming-of-age story, and the story of a young woman trying to lead her own life amidst the throes of a failed rebellion. It’s the story of her struggle to make her own decisions despite increasing pressure from two violently opposed factions, each of which wants to use her for two different ideas of the greater good. It’s also a study in the psychological effects of slavery and sex, and the cyclic nature of violence and oppression. Nowhere is this more apparent than it is in this line, which repeats in several chapters:

Every n**** walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.

Born to a slave and the plantation overseer, Lilith inherits her father’s green eyes, which set her apart from the beginning. As she grows up she comes under the attention of Homer, the leader of a group of slaves called the Night Women, who were all fathered by the same overseer. The Night Women realize that Lilith possesses dark powers and want to use her as a weapon in the revolt they’ve been planning, but, though they try to initiate her, they quickly discover that they cannot control her. Hovering around the outskirts of the group, Lilith is sometimes interested and sometimes not, but she is never truly one of them. Having murdered her master’s girlfriend’s family and burned down their estate after they’d pushed her way too far, she wants nothing to do with the Night Women’s revolt, which in her view amounts to more murders that she has no interest in committing. After being given to the new overseer, an Irishman named Robert Quinn, she finds her loyalties further divided as she struggles to maintain her hatred towards Quinn while also coming to regard him with a kind of unwilling affection. Quinn himself is completely besotted with Lilith and generally treats her somewhat decently, but is prone to reminding her in increasingly violent ways that he is a white man and she is a black slave. A five-year-old could tell you who holds the power, but Master Quinn feels so badly done by in this land where British people look down on Irish people that he takes it upon himself to tell Lilith that the Irish are more oppressed than the slaves. Despite this and other incidents, Lilith refuses to believe the women who tell her that Quinn treats the slaves like shit when he’s not with her, and she grows increasingly uneasy with the idea of a revolt, knowing that Quinn will be killed.

In the end the Night Women pull off their revolt as planned, but things go badly awry, and the escaping slaves are mostly captured by either the British militia or the Maroons. Lilith refuses to fight against either Quinn or her overseer father and tries to protect them both, and after the revolt is put back to work rather than facing torture and execution. Quinn dies in the revolt; her father does not. In the final chapter, Lovey reveals that she has been gathering stories from the people who survived the revolt (including Homer, who somehow dragged herself out of the burning mansion while riddled with bullets), and gives a quick synopsis of the fate of each of the Night Women. Most of them are dead, but Lilith, though never formally freed, was put in charge of her father’s care and has found a sort of freedom in running his house without interference. And, of course, nothing has changed: the slaves are still oppressed; the white people are still in charge, albeit a bit more trigger-happy; the British world spins towards the next explosion, which will probably come sooner and last longer, while learning absolutely nothing. As for those who might be tempted to judge Lilith for being human, Lovey has this to say:

And she teach me 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 the time come to write her song she have somebody true to be her witness. Somebody who know that one cannot judge the action of a n*****woman who only wanted to be everything and nothing. Mayhaps she ‘fraid of how the time was goin’ judge her. Mayhaps she don’t care, for she tell me everything as if me was a stranger and not blood.

Of course you want her to jump up and lead the revolt herself, whether she’s suited to the task or not. Of course you want her to run riot with her powers and bring the white men to their knees. Of course you want her to behead Quinn herself and shove his whip up his ass. Of course, of course, of course. But if she did any of that it would become an absurd escapist fantasy, and the ultimate lesson would be lost. If you’re feeling bad about yourself right now, don’t. I wanted those things too, but James’s way is better because it is a potent reminder that we cannot get lost in idealizing what might have been if Lilith had learned to control whatever powers she was born with. We cannot ignore what actually happened, and still does happen. We cannot forget.

The story on its own would have been enough, but the book is more powerful than it might’ve been in the hands of another author because James is an excellent writer. The book is narrated entirely in Jamaican patois, which, while I wasn’t familiar with it and had to google a few things, worked so well and was so beautifully done. There were so many amazing passages, but this one was probably my favorite:

And me goin’ sing the song and me mother goin’ sing it and even the blind n*****woman who live in the bush, who thin like stick, who hair white like cloud and who smell of mint and lemongrass, going sing it too. We goin’ sing once, then no more.

The womens. That woman. Me look at that woman. Me mother call me Lovey Quinn from birth. Me used to hate that name. Me did hate that name when me start writing but me come to peace with it now. Any n*****woman can become a black woman in secret. This is why we dark, cause in the night we disappear and become spirit. Skin gone and we become whatever we wish. We become who we be. In the dark with no skin I can write. And what write in darkness is free as free can be, even if it never come to light and go free for real.

Seriously, if you want me to read your book just bribe me with beautiful writing. That’ll get me every time.