A Heartbreaking History

Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 448 pages, ISBN 978-1594484360 (paper).

• October 2010

It should come as no surprise that Marlon James's second novel, The Book of Night Women, is not an easy text.  We never expect a slave narrative (recalling as it must the old story of brutality and injustice, speaking plainly of what is most abhorrent in human thought and action) to leave us comfortable in our skin.  Nevertheless, even within this seemingly endless body of stories, all devastating the heart of the reader with the darkest moments in the history of the Americas, James's book is perhaps uniquely exhausting—and uniquely deserving of our attention.

The novel’s protagonist is Lilith, a spirited slip of a girl turned teenage murderess who is both outcast and icon, both tortured and torturing.  With hauntingly green eyes, the legacy of her mother’s rape by her white overseer father, Lilith is beautiful enough to be a target for sexual violation and rebellious enough to kill to avoid it.  For these savage acts of self-defense, Lilith earns the protection of a group of slave women who, seeking to enact this sort of violence on a scale that will win them freedom, orchestrate a brutally vicious rebellion against the oppressor.  The girl, however, desires love as much as she wishes to rise to power and distinction in a white world, and the question quickly arises of where her loyalties will truly lie.   

James does not shy away from presenting vivid images of pitiless cruelty, images as horrific as they are intricately detailed.  In this narrative of terror in Jamaica at the turn of the nineteenth century, the cold reality of the legacy of violence and its heartbreaking casualties (not just in the form of bodies but also through a systematic dismantling of compassion, common decency, sanity, and ultimately humanity) is unveiled in color that truly lives as James imagines years of slavery and rebellion into being.  This is not a text that averts its gaze to any degree from the harshness of the historical truth: that the slightest error on the part of a slave might mean being stripped naked, slathered with honey and left bound and gagged to be ravaged by biting ants, or that those who rebelled against such treatment would face the gibbet, “screaming in the gag so the whole stretch sound like bawling coming up from hell.  And dripping blood to wake up fly and mosquito. All the way up the road niggers be hanging like uncanny fruit” (418).  Such abuse and shrieking agony are practically omnipresent throughout the text, described in a vernacular language whose brutal profanity matches its heartbreaking content.   

But James avoids the kind of heavy-handed didacticism that might allow us to escape the pain of his haunting images on a wave of righteous, angry condemnation of the evildoers.  Good and evil are all mixed up as self-preservation and the fight for freedom become synonymous with black-on-white and black-on-black vengeance; mutilation, torture and murder under the banner of rebellion threaten to dehumanize perpetrator and target as wholly as the system of slavery itself has done.  We cannot hide from the fact that essentialism works both ways here and that an eye for an eye thus means slaves burning white children alive and slitting the throats of fellow slaves afraid to rise up.  At the same time, like Lilith, we struggle to harden our hearts against her overseer lover, a man who is at once despicable for the violence that he begets and lovable for a tenderness that crosses racial lines when this is unthinkable for both black and white.  It may be that James's novel is painful most of all because it so consistently denies us the easy answers in which we might find at least some refuge from the terrible reality he exposes.

James’s grasp of the history is also impressive, and he allows us to take in historical detail in a way that feels organic rather than forced.  While the violence and profanity of the novel may make it inappropriate for younger readers, college students will experience this text as a window into a cultural history not just of slavery in the Caribbean but also of colonial society in the region: the translation of European military rivalries into anti-French xenophobia among Jamaican women, the identitarian anxieties of the white Creole ruling class in its attempts at self-definition vis-à-vis the metropole, or the prevalent gender roles and sexual mores of that class in the shadow of the sexual violation and exploitation associated with slavery itself.  With the increasingly greater scholarly interest in comparative Caribbean studies and questions of creolization as a cultural phenomenon, James’s text seems especially important in its insistence on grappling with those issues.    

This historical awareness also extends to the text’s treatment of literary history, which includes intriguing uses of intertextual references from the period and from classical mythology.  Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews—excerpted in such a way that it emerges as more than just contraband for a slave who wishes to read—is established as a sort of cultural bible for a foreign world of incomprehensible, unbelievable male honor and chastity.  (Lilith’s incredulous response to such ideas, incidentally, is in keeping with the satirical nature of Fielding’s text, though that quality itself is lost on her.) 

What’s more, James makes careful use of his first-person narrator, who ultimately emerges as the writer of the text as fictional memoir.   With the narrator’s freedom to present this harrowing story on paper comes a kind of power: an opportunity to shape the discourse surrounding slavery and thus, we might imagine, to put pressure on the ideological structures of prejudice and ignorance that made possible such atrocities as she describes.  In this way, James paints writing (and reading) as a productive alternative to the destructive and degrading revenge cycle played out through the physical violence of the novel, presenting an effective commentary on the place of his own craft within the fight for social justice.  While this idea itself is not a new one, it is freshly and evocatively presented here.

For readers who are willing to face the very difficult quality of James’s frank envisioning, there are real rewards to be found in The Book of Night Women.  Indeed, the richness of the novel resides most palpably in its simultaneous capacity to wound, to problematize and to teach.  Emotionally assailed by the horror of the images with which James confronts us, and unable to seek comfort in a facile conceptualization of the moral dynamics at play, we find our understanding of the history deepening with every page of this terrific text.


Suzanne Marie Hopcroft is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Yale University, where she works mainly on nineteenth- and twentieth-century narrative.  Her areas of focus have included comparative contemporary Caribbean literature and Anglo-American fiction of the long nineteenth century. 


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