Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Book of Night Women - Book Review

ALERT: This is gonna be one of my longer reviews, so the time to jump ship is now. 

STORYLINE:  The Book of Night Women is the story of how a group of female slaves instigated a rebellion on a Jamaican sugar estate. The book is narrated by a mysterious person whose identity is revealed at the end. I’d say the title references the fact that the women did much of their scheming under cover of darkness.

Lilith: a young woman, born into slavery, who has what others think of as a ‘dark power’.  Lillith is, in fact, haunted by a ‘presence’ that compels her to act. I think the woman started to haunt me too.  As the product of a slave and white man, Lillith is dark in complexion and has green eyes.  Being one to overthink everything, I found this a little hard to imagine. There were other black women on the estate who also had the overseer’s eyes and in one case, red hair.  Still, I’m fascinated by genetics and have seen some uncommon quirks passed down within families.

Homer: The head house slave who recruited the women to lead the rebellion on the Montpelier estate. Homer is a strong female, who endured much and lost much, but seemed to be a faithful servant to her owners while planning their demise.

Humphrey Wilson: Slave owner (or Backra Massa). A complex man with strong passions. He’s hoodwinked for a time by Isobel, who lives on a nearby estate.  

Robert Quinn:  Friend to Humphrey and overseer on the estate. He eventually takes Lillith to live with him and they form something of a relationship.

I LIKED: the characters in this story. Never have I been wrapped up in a historical/slave narrative to the extent that I got immersed in this one. I’ve read novels of this type before, however it’s been a long while since I’ve ventured down this road. The Book of Night Women is by far the most up-close-and-personal-look I’ve taken at the reality of slavery. This may be because the characters were real to me.  I laughed and cried with them, I bawled when Lillith was whipped for the first time in her life and then twice a week for a period after that. I cried when she was raped by a bunch of slave drivers and I cried when old Homer was whipped, even though she committed a crime.

I COULD HAVE LIVED WITHOUT:  the brutality contained within the covers of the book, however, it wouldn’t have come across as the genuine article if anything of the reality of the day had been omitted. We humans are inventive when it comes to inflicting pain and  taking away people's dignity.

The use of what we call bad words or ‘bad wud’ in Jamaica was excessive and leads me to wonder if we are so violent today because we’ve carried the legacy of slavery and that short-temperedness into modern times. It took little for the women planning the rebellion to start arguing. Lillith was full of fire and feisty, rude to her elders and the fire in her blood led her to kill on several occasions.

The term ‘nigger’ also got on my nerves after a time, and then I ignored it. It’s a term we use regularly in Jamaica and it doesn’t spark the outrage it does elsewhere.  However, our pronunciation differs from the way people in North America say it. Our speech is slower, so the word comes out as ‘neygar’ and not ‘nigger’. These days, ‘neygar’ is used to denote crass people who are described as ‘old neygar’. 

OVERALL COMMENTS:  Brutal, honest, haunting and unforgettable are words I’d use to describe The Book of Night Women. People who are not of Jamaican or Caribbean descent may find the book hard going at first because of the narrator’s voice, but nonetheless, it’s worth the read.

I read the book to and from work. Didn’t read it at home because of the effect it had on me. Apart from thinking about the suffering of the slaves (and yes, I forgot they are drawn from the writer’s imagination) the dark side of the book gave me the heebie-jeebies. I started thinking I’d see that woman who kept appearing to Lillith. Yeah, I’m weird like that.  Even when I wanted to stop reading, because I couldn’t stand anymore beatings and torture, I couldn’t prevent myself from reading further. I had to know how things turned out.  

Some of the characters seemed one-dimensional, eg. the white slave drivers, who the reader only saw as enforcers, and when they weren’t whipping the field workers, they were raping hapless women.

The relationship between Lillith and Robert Quinn, the Irish overseer was simple and yet complex. Lillith couldn’t quite see past the relationship of slave and master and yet Quinn, despite his faults, showed her tenderness she had never known prior to her living in his home. The end of their relationship made painful reading for me.

The many other relationships in the book were complex, such as those between slave/mistress, plantation owner/overseer and the classic one - house slave/field slave. 

There were a couple of things that I would have liked to know, but they were not important to the overall story. Read that as me overthinking again.

I don’t even want to imagine how long it took Marlon James to write and edit this book. It’s the best I’ve read in a while and the narrator’s voice the most compelling I can remember. Ever.   

I write, but I have an inferiority complex based on the genre of my stories.  Anyway, I was thinking, when I grow up, I wanna be just like Marlon James.

SOURCE: I pounced on this book when I saw it at the library, since the cost was beyond my book budget. Am I ever glad I borrowed it.  

RATING: The Book of Night Women was a quality, out-of-this-world-awesome  read.


  1. Looks like a fascinating read. Thanks for spreading the word about it.

  2. Looks like a fascinating read. And I appreciate the depth with which you reviewed it. Thank you!

  3. Thank you both for visiting. It was that good a read for me, but you gotta have a strong constitution to finish. :)

  4. This sounds like one incredible read. It sounds as more haunting than Slaves i read many years ago. I definitely must have this book in my collection. Wonderful review also.
    pretty blog.

  5. Sidne, thanks for stopping in. The book is indeed a great read.

    I like wallpapers, so I'm always changing them around.

  6. This sounds like a captivating book that I also would get fully engrossed in. Thanks so much for your insightful review. I'll be looking out for an opportunity to get this one.
    Laurie's Thoughts & Reviews

  7. JL, i'm having a book givaway at my blog for the leading lady of rap. this is not a video vixen novel. there is a wonderful story line to the great

  8. Laurie, I hope you do get a chance to read.

    Sidne, I'll come have a look. Thanks.

  9. Sounds like a good read. I like that it has a mysterious narrator whose identity is revealed in the end.

  10. Yes, that was a clever touch. Knowing who it was made me a little weepy.


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