Review: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Title: The Book of Night Women
Author: James, Marlon
Length: 408 pages
Genre: Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Riverhead Books / 2010
Why I Read It: Our third read for The Real Help project.
Date Read: 05/10/11
Note: This is a project initiated by Amanda and I to read the books recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians as alternatives to The Help. Please see the dedicated page I created for more information and for a schedule. We are hoping that more readers join us and we are also looking for others to host discussions. For discussion of this title, read on below! I am the discussion leader for this title.
In this book James transports the reader back to late 1700s Jamaica, and gives us the story of Lilith. Lilith’s mom died giving birth to her and so she is raised by another slave, Circe. Lilith is mulatto, and born with green eyes and a spirit that is impossible to tame. It is the eyes that set her out from the other slaves, but it is her spirit that gets her noticed and dictates much of what happens through her life.
The book is set in a location where there is a heavy Creole presence but also a large English population, and the English are quite disdainful of the Creole and the French because their countries are of course at odds. The population of Jamaica has over thirty slaves per free white person and that has both the English and French working together in an uneasy truce in order to keep the calm, in a land where rebellions seem to occur every few years like clockwork. Another slave, the most powerful on the plantation, is working to bring Lilith into just such a rebellion plot, insisting that she is perfect for it because of the darkness inside of her.
Lilith herself isn’t sure what will benefit her and what will really help others. Through her views and actions we see that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and sometimes the right thing can seem wrong. Through her actions we see that there are always repercussions and that events don’t happen in isolation but rather always affect other events. We also see that the slaves and masters had very different ideas of right and wrong and what was moral or not, and watching Lilith try to navigate these ideas and morals and decide for herself was really empowering. There is no easy answer or way to judge her or any of her actions, they can all be taken in a number of ways varying from great to terrible.
Through Lilith’s life we see the effect of being mulatto played out in her life. In many ways she was just another slave like any other, but in other ways she was both blessed and cursed. She was considered beautiful by some and thus subjected to rape and assault. But she was also protected in some ways from the harshest jobs out in the fields. Unlike A Million Nightingales which makes so clear the dangers of working in the house and why it wasn’t always the blessing we consider it now, James in this book uses the standard distinction that being out of the fields and in the house is always good. Saying that, however, an attentive reader definitely can’t miss the dangers of the house as they crop up and are treated almost as normal occurrences and something that isn’t much to put up with. This was both disturbing and effective – I think it highlighted the subtle levels of variation in dangers and how no place was really safe, and what seemed safe wasn’t always once you were in it.
Lilith herself grows and matures interestingly, focusing on love as she has been taught to read it (by another slave woman) in an English book. This leads her to fantasize about romance and escape from her life in a way that she knows can never truly come true. Her relationship in the latter part of the book was really interesting and also disturbing. The power dynamics were certainly a cause for concern and made it difficult to read, but James really highlighted how feelings and emotions can get involved but how power structures, when so unequal, will always come into play. I think this is something that has real relevance to life throughout the world any time such unequal power structures exist.
James’ writing itself was captivating and beautiful. It took a few pages to really catch on to the dialect used, but once acquired it really flowed well and you could imagine being there. The interplay between the various racial groups and their different dialects was really interesting as well – especially Miss Isobel, when she would switch back and forth. I liked how he really highlighted the importance of language and of that facade that people would use or create to signify power or high class. He also used repetition in a way that keeps the story moving and keeps drawing it together as well, to make it bigger than it is.
Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.
That phrase is repeated numerous times at the beginning of new sections or chapters and was a really effective way of drawing in new insights and facts and leading the story in a new way.
In particular relation to our The Real Help project, I’m interested in how so far the two fiction books that we’ve read have both been set so far in the past and have dealt with the evils of slavery as opposed to the time just after slavery and the early civil rights movement when The Help is actually set. Personally I think it is incredibly important to get the history behind the time when the book is set to fully understand why it is offensive to many the way The Help portrays the women. What do others think? Do you think it is possible to view events without the accompanying lens of history?
I highly recommend this book to all who enjoy a good story and who are interested in history, race, slavery, class, and more. Definitely an author I will be watching for more from. This is a book that will make you think and keep you thinking for some time to come. Don’t forgot to also check out Amanda’s post, though be warned – it contains many spoilers!