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...
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