four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Marlon James
user_rating: 
0

A-The Book of Night WomenNative Jamaican Marlon James’s first novel, John Crow’s Devil (2005), was a finalist for both the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The Book of Night Women is his second novel.

The Story: Lilith, the green-eyed daughter of a 13-year-old slave girl beaten and raped by a sadistic overseer, grows up in the horrifyingly brutal world of an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation. There, fearful slave owners, outnumbered 30-to-1 by their slaves, use increasingly vicious punishments to maintain control. Spirited and bold, Lilith is just 14 when she kills a would-be rapist with his own sword. "That was the first time she feel the darkness. True darkness and true womanness that make man scream." Exhilarated by the experience but aware of the consequences, she seeks the protection of the Night Women, a powerful, secret council of female slaves—but they exact a terrible price for their sanctuary.
Riverhead. 432 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1594488576

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The narrative voice is so assured and the descriptions so detailed and believable that one can’t help being engaged. … It doesn’t have the poetry of Morrison’s recent novel Mercy, but it does a better job of engaging our deepest emotions on the greatest cultural issue of the Americas, that of race, and it deserves to be read." David Kirby

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"‘[The white man] kill the motherness out of me,’ [one of the Night Women] laments, and that is the heart of this large, disturbing and fine novel, which kept me awake, gave me bad dreams for days, and which in spite of that I am grateful to have read. … The novel can be unrelentingly violent, and the litany of terror, torture and revenge is long and horrifically detailed." Susan Straight

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Marlon James’s second novel is both beautifully written and devastating. … Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable—even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success." Kaiama L. Glover

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Violence and misery pervade Lilith’s days; her almost unrelentingly grim life often makes for difficult reading. … There is no question, however, that the author has carved strong and compelling female figures out of the harsh landscape of 19th century British-ruled Jamaica." Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] darkly powerful second novel. … The book is full of … racial anger." Gail Lumet Buckley

Critical Summary

By exploring the ferociously cruel and dehumanizing practices of slavery in Jamaica, James adds a new chapter to the history of human bondage in the Americas—"a story we may dare to think we already know" (New York Times Book Review). Powerful and eloquent, The Book of Night Women is narrated in a lilting Jamaican patois that at once underscores and eerily conflicts with the disturbing images of violence and degradation that James conjures. Though the novel is filled with familiar figures—dissolute masters, jealous mistresses, house and field slaves—James never lets them devolve into clichés or ciphers; instead, he creates convincingly human characters. A stunning testament to the dynamics of ultimate power and powerlessness, Night Women will keep readers up at night.

Also by the Author

John Crow’s Devil (2005): In the 1950s, black vultures, known locally as "John Crows," plague the small Jamaican village of Gibbeah on the same day that a man calling himself Apostle York arrives and takes control of the local church. A fanatical religious frenzy among the villagers soon follows.