The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James
Reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf
A protagonist named Lilith drives the action in Marlon James' novel, so you can be sure that the male characters are destined for trouble.
A master with an affinity for history and mythology bestows the ponderously premonitory moniker -- which evokes a legendary demon queen -- on a mulatto slave girl. Lilith grows up on a plantation in east Jamaica at the dawn of the 19th century. Early on, she learns that she possesses "[t]rue darkness and true womanness," attributes that lead her to commit several acts of insubordination and eventually become involved in a slave rebellion.
Violence and misery pervade Lilith's days; her almost unrelentingly grim life often makes for difficult reading. Additionally, James' preoccupation with detailing the history and methods of slave punishment in his native Jamaica sometimes interferes with the story. Describing the violence meted out to a character, he might segue to listing other sorts of torture historically inflicted on slaves.
There is no question, however, that the author has carved strong and compelling female figures out of the harsh landscape of 19th century British-ruled Jamaica. Complementing Lilith is middle-aged Homer. Plucked from Africa at the age of 10, Homer has suffered unspeakable cruelty, yet far from being vanquished, she plots rebellion.
James also endows the slave women with culturally significant traits. The reverence in which folk religions Myal and Obeah are held highlights the persistent influence of Africa. Simultaneously, the story's narration in Jamaican Patois bespeaks an incipient hybrid identity.
Yet Night Women's most poignant feature is James' sensitive and layered treatment of the unlikely romance that blossoms between Lilith and her Irish overseer. On orders of the plantation master, Robert Quinn previously presided over Lilith's whipping twice a week. Now, however, he treats her with growing affection. Naturally, Lilith grapples with contradictory emotions: "She try to hold on to the Quinn that make her get whip twice a week -- But if Quinn touch her hair or moan or whisper lovey, everything broken. She would have to work up the hate all over again."
James quietly but insistently shows that, for all the disapprobation Lilith and Quinn's secret relationship would cause outside their bedroom, where social mores dictate that whites can rape slaves but not fall in love with them, the two have a bigger problem. "She lie on top of him and let Quinn wrap him arm around her back. But then him skin touch her scars and they both realise what they touching. He flinch and she flinch too. Suddenly they turn back into slave and master and they both know."
Indeed, the intrinsic dichotomy between Lilith and Quinn dooms their relationship. And that, in a nutshell, is the evil of slavery. So thorough and consuming is its destructiveness that even love doesn't stand a chance.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut.