Oneworld £12.99 (417pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Book of Night Women, By Marlon James

It is 1785 and a 13-year-old Jamaican slave girl is giving birth, agonisingly, as she lies dying in her own pool of blood. The baby who emerges, crimson-soaked and "squealing like it just depart from heaven to come to hell" at the start of Marlon James second novel, The Book of Night Women, is Lilith, the green-eyed daughter of Jack Wilkins, an "overseer" of slaves at a sugar plantation on the east coast of Jamaica.

She is also the protagonist of this epic narrative of master-slave brutality which depicts, in all its unexpurgated horror, the casual domestic savagery rife in two plantation-owning households, culminating in a graphic slave revolt of blood, guts and spleen-shedding carnage.

Lilith is among six mulatto house servants at the Montpelier Estate whose mothers were all raped by the same overseer, Wilkins: a fate which protects them from an even more arduous life of field slavery but serves as a reminder of the routine sexual abuse that the likes of Wilkins inflict on the female "domestics".

The six half-sisters or "night women" form a clandestine sisterhood, meeting in the witching hour to formulate the overthrow of their white oppressors in an island-wide insurgency, with the hope of creating a slave free state.

James, a Jamaican writer whose historical tale of slavery is told through Lilith's internal patois - not unlike the diary entries of the young, abused Celie in Alice Walker's The Colour Purple - manages to weave a narrative that sounds neither derivative nor contrived, for the most part. Using Lilith's distinctive voice, he manages to make the story of slavery in the Americas, repeatedly recounted in fiction, new. Lilith's narration is one of the novel's strongest features, written in the vernacular and carrying its own drum-like rhythm which is as lyrical as it is hypnotic, even in the most violent passages.

James uses the imagery of witchcraft and African shamanism inventively, as a metaphor for political resistance. Homer, the head of the sisterhood, has a supreme mastery of African lotions and potions that magically heal the other women from the whippings, rapes and beatings they endure; she uses the same potent herbs to send the masters and their wives into deranged states of mind as a form of revenge for the cruelty meted out to her sisters.

Lilith travels through the book resisting the sisterhood yet, at the same time, she is unable to submit fully to her powerless status as a slave. As a result, is a natural rebel, lashing out at her oppressors with a murderous rage. She is both exhilarated by this demonic energy within her ("Mayhaps true womanness was to be free to be as terrible as you wish") and at other times, is described as a hand-wringing Lady Macbeth, consumed by self-loathing and guilt.

In the end, the book is not just about the institutionalised hatred inherent in slavery but also a love story, with an inevitably tragic outcome. Lilith first struggles against the romantic overtures made by the Irish overseer, Robert Quinn ("you commanding slave to be free?" she asks him with horror), then submits to his advances, although she makes the mental note "no woman can afford to feel anything for a man in 1801", and she finally realises the love Quinn offers - bringing her freedom in the bedroom but leaving her as enslaved in other aspects of life - is just not enough. From this realisation comes her final act of rebellion, as well as her atonement.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss