Phew! What a way to finish my reading year! Originally published in 2009, this is the story of young, enslaved Jamaican woman Lilith, living on Montpelier sugar plantation in the late 18th century. She was conceived as the result of a rape on her very young mother by her white overseer father Jack Wilkins, from whom she inherits her green eyes. Fourteen years later, Lilith’s life changes when she is, in turn, threatened with rape by a johnny-jumper ( a black overseer) and she kills him. She is taken into the plantation-owner’s house, hidden by Homer, an older woman slave, through whom she meets a number of her half-sisters, who share her green eyes,. These ‘night women’ are plotting a rebellion on the plantation at a time when slave rebellions in other slave colonies have made the vastly-outnumbered white slave owners very nervous.
“Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will” is repeated several times through the text. The book captures well the relentless powerlessness of being enslaved, and the violence, brutality and seeming endlessness of such misery. This is an appallingly violent book- probably the most violent book I have ever read- at times, teetering of the edge of violence pornography (indeed, some commentators have labelled it as such – see Markus Nehl’s article “A Vicious Circle of Violence: Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women” available as full text here. ) Is such graphic, often sexualized, violence necessary? I wondered. But James has done his research, drawing on the descriptions of violence in Thomas Thistlewood’s diaries, the richest historical documents that survive from the period. Sickening though it is to read, to me there seems to be a dishonesty and betrayal in cloaking the brutality meted out on human bodies with evasion and avoidance.
The complexity and heterogeneity of the enslaved community, and its relationship with slaveholders, is well depicted in this book. It is embodied in Lilith, whose white paternity and her father’s half-hearted protection gave her a sense of superiority amongst other enslaved. This ‘protection’ did not extend to being able to avoid whipping and brutality, ordered by the Irish overseer Robert Quinn. Yet, when she was moved to Quinn’s house at the whim of her proprietor’s mistress, they fall in love, while not forgetting that he is “massa” and she is enslaved. While I was reading, I was constantly aware how quickly their relationship could revert to brutality, and I found myself feeling sick with dread that at the next page-turn Quinn could have turned on her, especially once she became aware of the planned rebellion. There was hostility and distrust between the ‘house’ slaves and the ‘field’ slaves. Much of the brutality was meted by the johnny-jumpers on their masters’ instructions, and rape and brutality existed amongst the enslaved themselves. The slaveholders themselves were debased by their own cruelty, not that one could hold much sympathy for them.
The story is told in a Jamaican patois, although it is not clear exactly who the narrator is until the end of the book. While some would (and do) see this as appropriation of the black female voice by a black male writer, this does not particularly concern me if there is fidelity and consistency in the narrative viewpoint – and on both these counts, James certainly delivers. The voice doesn’t falter once, and the complexity of Lilith’s feelings for Robert Quinn are convincing.
I didn’t find this an easy book to read, and at times I wondered if I could, and should, go on. But I was drawn into the tension of the story and captured by the narrative voice, and it ranks up there with the best books that I read during 2020, and one that I will remember for a long time.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.