The Book of Night Women

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2065

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Marlon James’s novel The Book of Night Women portrays the Montpelier estate, a sugar plantation in Jamaica where the slaves outnumber the white owners by thirty-three to one. Mindful of the 1791 takeover of St. Domingue by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Jamaican history of bloody slave uprisings, the whites rule by terror. The barbaric treatment of the slaves includes such tortures as burning alive, chopping off the feet of runaways, brutal whippings for minor offenses, and other punishments too gruesome to describe. Slaves know that their lives are worthless in the eyes of their owners; they can be easily replaced at the slave market in Kingston. James’s unrelenting depiction of violence and explicit descriptions of sexual abuse of women have disturbed many readers and critics. However, as the author has said, historical records offer ample evidence of the savagery of plantation life of that time.

Into the enclosed world of Montpelier is born Lilith, the green-eyed daughter of overseer Jack Wilkins, who names her for the first wife of the biblical Adam. Lilith’s fourteen-year-old mother, whom Wilkins raped, dies giving birth in a blood-filled scene that portends the role of blood throughout the story. Six women slaves who are secretly plotting an uprising at night believe that Lilith was born with demonic powers that threaten danger. Patrick Wilson, the dead plantation master, gave these women names from Greek mythology. Five of themGorgon, Pallas, Hippolyta, Iphegenia, and Callistoare half-sisters fathered by Jack Wilkins; several have inherited his green eyes. Homer, the only African-born of the six, commands the household slaves and is the most powerful black woman on the plantation. Mutilated by a brutal whipping that caused a miscarriage, she was used by the master as breeding stock, producing two children who were sold and met early deaths at the hands of their owners. Homer, outwardly compliant, is ruled by her desire to avenge her children; she has nothing more to fear.

In the wake of Wilson’s death, his widow teeters at the edge of insanity, while the plantation descends into chaos. Humphrey, Wilson’s son, is summoned from Europe to restore order. He replaces Wilkins, making his Irish companion Robert Quinn the new overseer.

The narrator, whose identity is withheld until the final chapter, speaks in Jamaican dialect, a risky choice by the author. However, once this voice is established in the first pages, the lyrical speech patterns seduce readers into accepting the compelling story. Several times, the narrator begins a chapter with this mantra: “Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.” The slaves of Montpelier understand that their lives are circumscribed by the dictates of their masters: They have no choices.

Montpelier is a nightmare for the slaves, whose work enriches its British owners. The whites, separated from the conventions of British society, exercise unrestrained power over their slaves, whom they treat as animals. In an early chapter, two slaves die from a mysterious bloody flux. The terror-stricken slaves attribute this event to Obeah, African black magic, and refuse to go into the fields. The overseers choose a random victim, a young girl, and slowly burn her to death while the slaves are forced at gunpoint to watch. Order is outwardly restored, but the slaves’ resulting hatred and thirst for revenge fuel the brewing insurrection.

The British landowners, shunned by polite society, have their own caste system. They regard the Irishman Quinn as an inferior, little better than a slave. He is tolerated by Humphrey, as he harbors a dark secret about Humphrey’s past. Meanwhile, Isobel Roget, the daughter of the civil servant of the Coulibre plantation, is a Jamaican-born Creole. Mistress Wilson is horrified by the looming possibility of a marriage between Humphrey and a woman of such dubious ancestry.

The slaves, in turn, have secrets and enmities among themselves. From the lowest field hands, fed starvation rations and worked to death, to the house slaves, who fare marginally better with food and clothing, they establish their own hierarchy. The “johnny-jumpers,” slaves given unlimited freedom to punish others by the master, rape and whip fellow slaves at will. In the hills, Maroons, roaming bands of escaped slaves, are paid by the whites to hunt down runaways.

Lilith, at fifteen, is beautiful and headstrong and believes herself superior to the other slaves. Homer watches with scorn as Lilith attempts to ingratiate herself with the white family. She warns: “Lord knows what happen when a nigger girl not content with her lot.” Homer includes Lilith in the nighttime plotting, although the other five hate her and fear that she will betray their cause.

When a Johnny-jumper attempts to rape Lilith, she murders him with his own cutlass. The night women dispose of the body; Homer brings her to the main house under her protection. Lilith, despite dire warnings from Homer, attracts the attention of Mistress Wilson, who assigns her to serve at table for the plantation’s New Year’s banquet. Vain and consumed by her own self-importance, Lilith commits a misstep that changes her life: She spills scalding soup on Isobel Roget’s chaperone, severely burning her and disrupting the dinner party. Humphrey beats Lilith with his fists, then turns her over to be gang-raped by white overseers. Isobel, driven by a desire for vengeance, takes satisfaction in ordering Lilith’s beating with the bullwhip for several weeks until Jack Wilkins intervenes. Lilith becomes known as the woman with the quilt on her back.

Although it will be difficult for readers to summon any sympathy for the unspeakable behavior of the white plantation owners, James successfully develops complex psychological portraits that make them believable characters. Moral distinctions between good and evil are clouded, as even the whites are revealed to be capable of unaccountable acts of compassion. Slaves, meanwhile, victims who should elicit readers’ sympathy, are capable of savage cruelty toward other slaves.

James also includes instances of humor amid the horror. Homer teaches Lilith to read with the only book available, Henry Fielding’s The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742; commonly known as Joseph Andrews). Quinn continues her education with Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Lilith’s disingenuous commentary on the behavior of these fictitious narratives provides some lighter moments in the otherwise unrelenting darkness.

After the banquet disaster, Lilith is sent to Coulibre to serve at Isobel’s whimIsobel’s strategy for keeping her enemy under her control. Lilith is terrified when the young slave Dulcey, her coworker in the kitchen who serves the master’s perverted sexual desires, is beaten to death by Mistress Roget in a fit of jealousy. One day when Isobel is away, Lilith explodes under her silent burden of terror. While she is assisting Master Roget in his bath, he forces her into a sexual act. She responds by drowning him. When the mistress approaches, Lilith pushes her over the balcony to her death. Crazed by the fear of discovery, Lilith sets fire to the house, burning two slave women and the Rogets’ two young children to death. In the confusion that follows, her claim that she was in the barn milking the cow when the fire started is believed, but only by the whites. Several slaves are tortured into false confessions and executed, including the innocent Francine, who is burned to death. Lilth’s murderous powers become legendary among the slaves.

Lilith, who sees herself as less than human, begins to mature into an individual capable of highly intelligent distinctions of moral reasoning. She is, in her own word, “perplex” about questions that trouble her. Roget, a murderer and rapist, deserved to die, as did his wife, who was equally guilty of terrible cruelties. She believes that the two boys, who would have become cruel masters like their parents, also deserved death. Nevertheless, Lilith’s nights are haunted by the vision of a shadowy, dark woman, and she is tormented by the smell of the burning bodies. She charges herself with the murder of seven people, including the three innocent slave women whose deaths she has caused.

Isobel, meanwhile, is driven insane by the ghastly deaths of her family. She begins speaking wildly in slave dialect and makes nighttime journeys into the brothels and opium dens of Kingston. Although she and Humphrey are having a sexual relationship, she cannot convince him to propose marriage.

In an unexpected turn in the narrative, there is a temporary respite, an incongruous love story. Robert Quinn takes Lilith into his house as his mistress and housekeeper. He treats her as though she were a white woman, begging her to call him by his Christian name and calling her “Lovey.” His gentle lovemaking awakens her sexual response, which was deadened after her earlier rapes. Even while they make love, though, he feels the scars on her back from the whippings that he sanctioned. Lilith, growing confident in her new knowledge of love, begins to imagine herself differently. Homer, scornful of her trust in a white man, asks who she thinks she is. She responds, “Me think me is Lilith,” yet she understands what Quinn cannot: He will always be the master and she the slave.

In contrast to these tender scenes of romance, Homer’s plans for the uprising, three years in the making, are coming to fruition. She intends to kill all the whites and establish African-style villages throughout the island. Secret communications among slaves from several plantations have set the day for the revolt. It will take place in the midst of the cane harvest, when most slaves will be in the fields, where they can kill the overseers and escape in the night. Homer orders Lilith to join in the conspiracy, but Lilith refuses, telling Homer that she cannot commit any more murders and predicting that the revolt cannot succeed. Homer, unforgiving in her thirst for revenge for the deaths of her children, will not listen. Lilith’s warning fails.

When the uprising begins, Lilith attempts to protect Quinn by drugging his food and hiding him. Mistress Wilson, the johnny-jumpers, and at least ninety-four whites from the rebelling plantations are killed, their bodies mutilated in barbaric acts of revenge. Inevitably, however, the insurrection is put down by British soldiers with their superior numbers and weapons.

The horrors of the insurrection and its aftermath are described in explicit detail in the final section of the book, “Gehenna.” Lilith, watching as the plantation house burns, runs to the safety of Jack Wilkins’s house. When she protects him by facing down the rioters, they retreat in terror, fearing her evil powers. This act saves her from the fate decreed by Humphrey Wilson’s vengeance: The surviving rebels are placed in spiked cages alongside the road to die slow, agonizing deaths. Robert Quinn is killed during the revolt despite Lilith’s efforts to save him. Isobel, already pregnant, is brutally raped and left to survive as best she can in the ashes of Montpelier.

The narrative voice is finally revealed as that of Lovey Quinn, the daughter of Quinn and Lilith. She assumes the traditional African role as witness and storyteller, charged with honoring the lives of the night women who died in the uprising. She pieces together the story as given to her by her mother and an unnamed “blind niggerwoman in the bush.” Either Homer has survived, or she serves as a tutelary spirit who witnesses to the truth. In the words of the chant repeated through the story, the circle within which every African walks is complete. As Lilith foresaw, Homer’s thirst for vengeance was the fatal flaw that blinded her to the truth that the slave insurrection would fail, marking the full circle of tragedy.

James has created, out of historical fact and soaring imagination, a compelling world of such horror as to give readers nightmares. Still, as several critics have said, this is a story that needs to be told. Slavery, as history shows, has the power to corrupt both those who own other human beings and the slaves themselves, who prey on one another. This tale of racism and ethnic strife carries a warning that transcends its time and place. When one group refuses to acknowledge the humanity of the other, primitive savagery beyond rational belief can be the only result.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

The Boston Globe, Living Arts, May 12, 2009, p.4.

Chicago Tribune, Books and Media, February 14, 2009, p.1.

Essence, March, 2009, p.60.

Library Journal 134, no. 12 (July 1, 2009): 52.

Library Journal 134, no. 3 (February 15, 2009): 94.

Miami Herald, March 1, 2009, M6.

The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, p.7.

The Washington Post, February 17, 2009, p. C9.