I didn’t mean to start reading this book when I first picked it up. I was intending to flip through it, read a page or two as a preview and then move on to the rest of books that I had stacked in front of me to do the same thing. But, when I began reading Lilith’s story I was immediately drawn in and could not put it down. It’s a pretty substantial book, yet I was through with it in just a few short days.
Lilith has grown up in a cabin on the edge of the Montpelier Estate for as long as she can remember with an indifferent Circe a for a mother and Tantalus, a half mad slave for a father. Lilith’s life changes one morning after she kills a john jumper (field slaves who acted as assistant overseers and kept the other field slaves in check) who has attacks her in her cabin before she is to report to work in the fields. In order to escape the punishment for her crime she is taken in and hidden in the cellar of the plantation owner’s house by Homer, who has been managing things for years. While working alongside the women there, Lilith becomes involved in the secret meetings of the night women who want to use her in a dangerous plan to take over the island from White plantation owners. Secrets, betrayal and complicated love affairs abound in this sweeping coming of age slave rebellion drama set against the backdrop of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Lilith has to make some hard decisions as she finds out the truth about her parentage and weighs the high and terrible prices of both revenge and love.
I was pretty much blown away by this book. I don’t know if I have ever read a fictional slave narrative with as much violence, passion and bite to it. The language was harsh, the women spoke to each other harshly and that does not even take into account the master and slave dynamic, which was of course brutal. The tale is told in the patois of the island, by a mysterious narrator that I kept trying to place throughout my reading of the novel. The voice was amazing to me, it richness and consistency was intriguing and disturbing all at the same time. It was a little distracting because I so wanted to know who was telling the story and I kept looking for clues to figure it out!
Lilith is a fiercely complex character and I didn’t always like her- she was young and could be a little whiny, bratty and hard-headed, and not to mention incredibly naive at times. There were times when I was appalled by her actions, but there were so many shades of gray that I wondered whether she could have chosen differently if her aim was to survive, or even what I would do if faced with her circumstances. There are so many complex and disturbing situations in this book that were the result of the peculiar institution known as slavery, and many times no clear right or wrong as to the way characters chose to deal with the devastation of their lives. I know that I definitely had a lot of back and forth with myself as I was reading, and often did so with my mouth hanging open from shock, among other intense emotions. Highly recommended, but definitely not for the faint of heart.
Marlon James on The Book of Night Women click here. (It’s really interesting, and no spoilers!)