Oneworld £12.99 (417pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Book of Night Women, By Marlon James
Friday 28 August 2009
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.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Russian officials ban yoga because it's too much like a religious cult
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 Ginger Pride festival to take place next summer, organisers say 'time of bullying gingers is over'
- 5 Facebook rainbow profile pictures likely being tracked by social network
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Guillaume Tell gang-rape scene causes uproar at the Royal Opera House
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS