The Book of Night Women

Author Marlon James
Vote 6/10
Reviewed on 2018-04-29
Read in English

I’m a big fan of Marlon James and I think that A Brief History of Seven Killings is a supreme masterpiece.

Not long ago, while reading reviews of this writer’s work, I’ve run into a comment saying that The Book of Night Women was an even better book, so I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy and reading it. This is the comment, in The Guardian’s review of the Killings:

Easily one of the best Jamaican novels ever written, The Book of Night Women, a slave narrative, is an incredible feat of plotting, pace and language. While it embraces a Jamaican dialect, it also established James as an international star. In every way, it is a bigger novel than John Crow’s Devil; epic in scale, and written with far more narrative power and lyricism.

The story is set in Jamaica at the end of the eighteenth century. At the time, Jamaica is an English colony in the West Indies, and slavery is, as it appears, a common practice. The book follows the story of Lilith, a green-eyed slave born to a mother that dies during her birth, and which is described as a rebel spirit. Lilith grows up with a couple of slaves who are judged unable to work in the fields, until one day she becomes a house slave thanks to the compassion of Homer, the head of the house slaves. Through several vicissitudes the girl grows up in the Montpelier Estate, property of the Wilsons, and in particular under the control of Master Humphrey Wilson, a bachelor come back from England after his studies to take over the land left without master after his father’s death. The night women of the title are a mysterious secret sorority of just six slave women, all having in common one thing, who conspire to free the slaves from the white man’s inhuman control.

Like Seven Killings, the language of the story is incredible. Patois is a very musical language (with a large and almost embarrassing oversimplification, to me it sounds like epic read as rap), and the way of telling the story is very enticing. The violence is present everywhere and the day of a slave is brutal, and this is depicted quite accurately. The unraveling of the plot is very intriguing, revealing only after long what is hinted in the initial chapters and then along the course of the book (like Madame Isobel’s queer habit of riding a horse at night). But there is something I didn’t find convincing.

I don’t know exactly what I didn’t like. I think that, in a way, once you take away the language and the novelty of the scenario (I didn’t know there was slavery in Jamaica at that time, for instance), it is just a good book with a solid plot, but nothing that takes your breath away. Felt ordinary. Might be that I was expecting so much more because I’ve read the Killings first.