Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Marlon James, The Book of Night Women

Marlon James is a Jamaican writer born in 1970. The Book of Night Women (2009) is his second novel but the first I have read (listened to, actually), and I found it fascinating. It tells the story of Lilith, a mulatto slave born on a Jamaican sugar plantation in 1784. Lilith's green eyes show that her father was a white man, and she spends a lot of time thinking about how they make her different from the rest of the slaves. Her father is actually the plantation's old overseer, a sinister figure who has murdered many blacks and fathered a brood of mulattoes. Thanks to his patronage she avoids work in the cane fields and joins the slave elite of house servants. The fist two-thirds or three-quarters of the book meander in a way that puzzled me, but in the end the purpose of these seemingly random adventures is made clear: when the slaves of eastern Jamaica plot a great revolt, Lilith is poised in perfect ambivalence, and she might convincingly have joined the revolt's leaders or betrayed them to the slave owners.

The revolt is planned by the night women, six female slaves who all have particular reasons to hate their owners. Their leader, Homer, was born in Africa and she convinces the others that if they escape the plantation they can set up villages in the hills like Africans do. They teach Lilith that to be a real woman she must accept the darkness inside her and learn to hate and kill. I loved the night women and Homer in particular, and I have a feeling that James was also fascinated by this creation of his. There are other great characters in the book, black and white. In fact the one character I did not really enjoy or enjoy hating was Lilith herself. She spends a lot of the story in a state of confusion, endlessly worrying over the same questions, which might be realistic but does get tedious. She also does a lot of pointless rebelling and backtalking (to the more senior slaves, not to white people). When someone tells her something obviously true, she has to bark back that the speaker is just jealous or some such, and I got tired of this. But then she is about 15 when the book starts,and she grows up a lot by the end.

The book is written is a sort of black Jamaican dialect, and this is one reason why I opted to listen rather than read. I have trouble reading dialect, but as read by Robin Miles it works wonderfully, and I very much recommend her version.

I ended the book wondering about Marlon James and his own attitude to his Jamaican ancestors. He hates slavery and dwells at times on its horrors. But only a few of his characters are outright villains and none of them are saints. One of the most interesting parts of the book comes when Lilith lives as the common law wife of the plantation's new overseer, an Irishman. These arrangements were common in the Caribbean, and so far as we can tell some of them were not much different from the average marriage in that patriarchal, violent age. Others were only more intense and personal versions of the sadistic exploitation that defined plantation culture. Lilith's own arrangement confuses her greatly, because this same overseer who once had her savagely whipped for dropping a tray of soup on the guests at the master's New Year's ball now calls her "luvey" and expects her to sleep in his bed. The Irishman comes across as a decent man, or at least as decent as any plantation overseer could be. Compared to his attempts at kindness, the rage of the night women seems a sinister, purely destructive force. Lilith faces the question of whether violent, destructive revolt or accommodation to the system makes more sense for her, especially since during the months of their "marriage" the Irish overseer is kinder to her than anyone else has been in her life. The whole situation is riddled with ambivalence. Two places of great significance are the cave where the night women meet and the library of the big house, and sometimes it seemed to me that James' own sympathies were more in the library than with the plotters in the cave. He is a writer, after all, with a first-rate British education. How does he see Jamaica's present, and its future? What, to him, is the heritage of its horrific past?

Or maybe I'm thinking too hard again, and maybe The Book of Night Women is just a great story about one young woman's world. It certainly is that.

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