Marlon James can really tell a story. I will be straightforward: I don’t think The Book of Night Women is on the same level that A Brief History of Seven Killings is on, it is still a remarkably good book that, like A Brief History, challenges its reader in a variety of ways. It possibly falls short only its spending a few moments to explain things that I wasn’t sure needed to be explained, but that’s not really anything I’m going to hold against a book that much unless it just does it entirely too often. And to clear the air, I’m not sure how I feel about reviewing this as a 25 year old straight white guy. Much of The Book of Night Women deals with blackness and approaches to dealing with oppressors in a system they perpetuate. I can talk in theory about this, but it’s humbling to sit down and write about a subject I have no business involving myself in. I will touch on it with some thoughts from Nietzsche on revenge, but that’s about it.
First and foremost, The Book of Night Women is about slavery. What is perhaps most haunting about the novel is that it is still so relevant to today’s issues. I imagine it took Marlon James little work to make the book so contemporary despite its being set in turn of the 19th century Jamaica. What we’re introduced to in the novel is a teenage slave named Lillith who was fathered by the former master of the plantation. Her mother died while birthing her and after being raised by a woman who wanted little, if anything to do with her she is moved into the master house by a slave woman named Homer, who takes her into the house and inducts her into a league of women who were fathered or at least greatly affected by the former master of the house, Jack Wilkins. Wilkins, in naming his children, gained a penchant for Greek gods and goddesses. Lillith is surrounded by Gorgon, Andromeda, Athena, and a few others. Above all, though, they are led by Homer and instructed by her word, bringing to mind obvious connections to the Greek poet.
All these connections set up a certain tragedy, which perhaps I was naive to think could possibly be avoided or at least not so obvious, though it is not really a negative on the book. The Greek Tragedy of it all is, in the end, a background theme that I think you need to specifically be looking for to really find all the clues. It’s definitely there, but James isn’t an author that hits his readers over the head with themes and symbols. It’s all about the story. What stood out to me about the novel was the discussion it held concerning revenge and its place among the oppressed. As Lillith grows in the novel we see her encountering more and more the magical or spiritual side of the novel. She repeatedly sees a “Dark Woman” in the room with her, always carrying with it feelings of bloodlust. As Homer and the other women plan a revolt, Lillith repeatedly discusses her feelings of finding the revolt a waste of time that will hurt slaves more than help them.
The Dark Woman coincides routinely with Lillith’s own remorse over her deeds at a plantation she is moved to in part two of the novel, which gets into a bit too much spoiler territory for me to cover. As Lillith begins a relationship with a white man, Robert Quinn, she begins to move back and forth in her hatred for him both as Robert Quinn and as a white man. For what he does to give her a sort of freedom she seems to be grateful for, but the fact that he remains deeply convicted within the system of slavery itself drives her to continue to see him as only a white man. There is a scene in which Quinn attempts to buy Lillith from her master as a sort of romantic gesture. Within it holds the key to the major criticism of those the system benefits that the novel makes: that they want to continue to reap the benefits of a system that directly harms and subjugates black people while pretending an action that isn’t freedom is the same thing.
And this is Homer’s voice within the novel. Though her methods and reasoning are questionable, the point she makes is true. Does Robert Quinn really have Lillith’s best interest at heart when she is still a slave to him, albeit one that is allowed to say anything she wants? Yet I side with Lillith in her response to Homer and her attempt to find a middle ground. Homer is out for revenge. A revenge that will bring nothing but more pain. She operates at all times in a mode of Nietzschean ressentiment thinking that it will bring her fulfillment until it is laid bare by Lillith.
Once again, this is the brilliance of Marlon James. Much like A Brief History of Seven Killings there’s no one in this novel to really root for. It’s disturbing and complex. It’s difficult in what it asks you to consider and understand. It’s yelling that we’re doing the same things today under a different name and we need to figure out a way to escape both a path of revenge and a continued path of subjugation. The novel isn’t hopeful about this, as it takes the path of a Greek Tragedy. Yet it does continue to shed light on something that we love to push to the darkness. Much like Lillith, we must overcome our darkness if we’re going to make it.
Recommended to: Those who are on the fence about Marlon James and those who love a dense story that breaks the SWE mold of writing while still finding a way to say something deeply moving and powerful.
Avoid as if tweeting out that you’re about to start the “Summer of the Short Story” only to read Marlon James’ second novel: This book is violent and extremely sexual. If that is not your thing then you will not be able to enjoy it (though I’m not sure this is a book to necessarily be enjoyed at all). It’s challenging in a lot of ways, but keep in mind: that’s not a bad thing.