The story of American slavery is well known, but that of the Caribbean less so. The Book of Night Women, by Jamaican author Marlon James, is an impressive slavery saga driven by a robust cast of female characters.
Lilith is a green-eyed mulatto slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the late 1700s. Her 13-year-old mother died giving birth to her and she has few friends among fellow slaves where mistrust and betrayal are the order of the day.
The night before she begins working in the fields, 14-year old Lilith murders a “johnny-jumper” who tries to rape her. Johnny-jumpers are slaves in charge of other slaves and are especially cruel.
Into this scene walks in Homer, an older slave woman with a core of steel. She takes charge of the situation, supervises the destruction of evidence, and saves Lilith from a gruesome punishment by sneaking her into the mansion. Here the young girl rises up the ranks as a house slave.
Not long after, the master, Humphrey Wilson, returns from England to run the estate and take care of his ailing mother. He is accompanied by a trusted friend, an Irishman called John Quinn whom he appoints the estate overseer. A secret past holds the two men together.
Headstrong, bold but naive, Lilith directs this tragic story as she searches for her identity. She repeatedly pushes the boundaries of bondage, harbours romantic ideas, and believes herself superior to other slaves as she refuses to be defined by her circumstances. In her wake she leaves a trail of death and destruction.
The wise and hardened Homer secretly teaches her to read. As a secondary protagonist, I found Homer pivotal to this story that could otherwise have been the usual tale of a tortured history.
Though most of the story occurs on the plantation, we are briefly taken to the seedy quarters of Kingston town, the opium dens and slave market, where we meet the Maroons, former slaves who specialise in capturing other runaways and returning them for a fee.
Written in Jamaican patois, an English dialect widely spoken, the book is initially laborious to read for a non-native speaker.
But once you get into the cadence, the narrative is easy to follow. The unrelenting brutality in the book is stomach-churning yet James’s storytelling mastery keeps you hooked to the very end of this 400-page tome.
His knowledge of Caribbean history is enlightening. The ratio of Jamaican slaves was 33 to every white man. The slave rebellion is premised on the 1791 anti-slavery revolution of San Domingue, which created present-day Haiti.
The Book of Night Women is a masterpiece coming-of-age-age story and historical review of West Indian slavery. It won the Minnesota Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.