The Book of Night Women - Marlon James

Format: Paperback

Publisher: Riverhead Books, NY

Published: 2009

Genre: Historical fiction

Setting: Jamaica

Rating: 5 Stars


The Book of Night Women is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the 18th century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they – and she – will come to bother revere and fear. The Night Women as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feeling and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link.

My thoughts….

“Somebody must give account of the night women of Montpelier. Of Slavery, the black woman misery and the black man too”.

Marlon James is a certifiable genius. Take that and make of it what you will and don’t argue with me. He has the ability to reach into the depths of your emotions and make you feel and feel I did - sad, angry, hateful, hopeful, devastated, disappointed, heart-broken, grief stricken and resigned. He has the ability to get you heavily invested in the story and characters; I was worried about them, I couldn’t sleep some nights wondering what would become of Lilith and Homer, I wanted to reach out, hug some and slap others. He makes you love books over and over again and marvel at their power to speak to you and change you.

“Every Negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.”

Set in the 1700 and 1800s, The Book of Night Women tells the story of a Slave revolution on a Sugarcane plantation on the East Coast of Jamaica in 1801, led by a league of women, who scarred by years and years of brutality meted out against them by their white masters, have decided enough is enough. They must rise up and fight for their freedom and if that means killing every white man and turncoat nigger in sight, then so be it.  

Lilith, who is at the centre of this narrative, is born of a 13-year slave girl who dies at childbirth in the Montpelier plantation. Her father, the plantation overseer Jack Wilkins entrusts the caring of Lilith to Circe, a fire ball of a woman and Tantalus, the mad man. Even at birth, Lilith has about her a lightness and darkness that she would carry with her for the rest of her life. When at 14 she kills a slave driver who wanted to rape her, Circe calls in Homer, the head house slave, and the night women to help. Homer noticing the darkness within Lilith takes her under her wing, hoping to channel that darkness to their cause for a slave revolt to create a free state.

The Night Women, made up of a group of 6 women all sired by Jack Wilkins the Overseer, through the rape of their mothers, and faced with a life full of hate and hardship, come together holding nightly meetings where they practice their Obeah and plot on how to revolt and spread the word to the entire East Coast.  Their planning and scheming culminates in the bloodiest of revolts and brings out the ugliest of ugly in human beings.

This book made me question and re-evaluate my understanding of Good and Evil. Is there a universal good and universal evil? Can human beings agree on what is good and what is evil? Who determines who or what is evil because the way I see it, the ‘perpetrator’ of the injustice always feels justified and rational in his actions? Nobody ever thinks their actions as evil, everyone believes they are acting in their best interests. In the interest of Self-preservation. Were the slave drivers evil or were the slaves evil in instigating a bloody revolt in an attempt to free themselves?

Lilith is an enigmatic, complex character. She is difficult to describe and understand her but that is the beauty of human beings. Her complexity endears her to the reader, one minute you are rooting for her, hoping she finds favour with her Massa, next you are shocked at how uppity and dark she can get. How brutal and murderous. And yet throughout the book, throughout her light and dark moments, you maintain a soft spot for her and are invested in her fate. She is spirited and ‘uppity’ as a child, talking back and having opinions at a time where niggers were not allowed to have opinions or think or read and worse still, write. I loved growing with her. Seeing all the horrible things that happen to her that could easily break down her humanity, kill her spirit and drown her, and though at times she does lose her voice, especially when trying to come to terms with her evolving relationship with Robert Quin, she never loses her spiritedness, she never loses her ability for empathy and her ability to love.


"too spirited for a nigger girl, black like pitch with legs too smooth for a slave and hair too woolly and lips too thick like fruit and eyes that seem robbed from white lady."

But Lilith is not the only memorable character – Homer, Humprey Wilson, Miss Isobel, Robert Quin – they are all memorable and perfectly developed. Flawed and human. Annoying and amusing. Good and evil.

James’ depiction of violence is staggeringly sobering. Nobody can do it quite like him. Descriptive, disturbing and raw, he does not pull any punches. For some readers, this might make you uncomfortable, I myself winced plenty times reading about the flogging and the inhumane treatment of slaves. But it is in this raw description that you are forced to face the harsh truth about just how brutal slavery was. So, if it makes you wince, good. If it makes you squirm and temporarily slam the book, good. If it makes you angry and nauseated, even better! That is what is is intended to do.

“white man sleep with one eye open, but black man can never sleep,”

This is yet another Marlon James book that has me blown away and I can’t help but admire this man and his prowess. That he writes from a female perspective flawlessly, you’d be forgiven to assume this book has been written by a woman has me awed.  He can do no wrong in my eyes, literary speaking and this book is a solid 5 Star book.

Have you read this book? If not, what are you waiting for? And if so, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.


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