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.
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