I’ll start by saying this: I would probably be a very restless soul if I didn’t pen my response to Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women. Reasons for saying this are, firstly, I am really excited about new works and new writers in Caribbean/West Indian literature, and secondly, I have had a rather strong reaction to the 413 page novel. I feel I must write, also, because The Book of Night Women focuses on an area that has been part of my academic/personal interest, the representation of Afro-Caribbean women in literature.

The novel foregrounds the daily uncertainties and horrors of slavery in the 18th century Montpelier estate of Jamaica. The workings of Montpelier reach the audience through a mostly first person narrator, whose Jamaican creole cadence is initially successful in creating an illusion of an authentic firsthand account of the events. The narrator throws it out for the reader with an opening scene that details the birth of the main character, Lilith, whose 13year old mother dies in delivery: “black legs spread wide…a weak womb done kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight and greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.” Such an opening paragraph serves to shock the reader into the reality of Montpelier. There are no innocents and there is no room for niceties. The baby with the dark skin and green eyes has unwittingly killed her mother, and her birth is greeted with fear by the women witnesses.

James presents the green eyes as having some significance in that they are the mark of her white father Wilkins, the overseer of the estate, and she would grow to learn of the other women with dark skin and green eyes who were also sired by Wilkins. The Book of Night Women in essence is this, a chronicle of a rebellion plot on Jamaica with conspirators in groups of six, forming a matrix of conspirators amongst the estates on Jamaica. James focuses on the women of Montpelier, who are instrumental in strategizing and executing the details of the plot that lead to the bloody rebellion that takes place near the end of the text. These women, most of them, are the daughters of Wilkins. Marked with the green eyes, each of them has learnt how to read, and each of them has a talent (pistol wielding, knife throwing, knowledge of Myal and Obeah) that she brings to the plotting when they congregate under the cover of night in a secret cave. These women, led by the indomitable Homer, are convinced that they are the only ones who could follow through with the rebellion on Montpelier as the men are weak-willed. I must admit however, that apart from marking them as the daughters of the overseer, I am not sure that the ‘green eyes’ trope was really essential to propelling the plot. The leader, Homer, did not possess the green eyes and was nonetheless instrumental, as well as some other slaves, and there is no indication that the plotters on the other plantations had such a distinguishing feature. I would venture to say that the women were in possession of other traits that cemented their usefulness to the rebellion that didn’t hinge on their green-eyed link to their white father.

Speaking of a slave woman named ‘Homer’, the naming of the slaves in the novel is note-worthy. Wilkins has a penchant for naming his slaves after icons from Greek mythos namely Andromeda, Circe, Hippolyta, Gorgon, Cronos, Bacchus, Atlas, Pallas, Homer and Lilith. It underscores his ironic understanding of the positions the slaves of Montpelier in relation to their names. He has the power to erase their historical identities in relation to Africa, and supplant their original names with the names of Greek gods and demigods.

Wilkins’ relationship with the slaves, especially the ones he fathered, exemplifies the complex relationships that emerged between slave and master. Indeed the masters or the whites of the plantations of  Montpelier, Coulibre and Kingston seek to maintain the line between themselves and slaves through the whip and the gun, but, as James’ text suggests, this line is often undermined by the intimate knowledge that the slaves would have obtained through being in close contact with the masters. The slaves experience the base desires of the masters’ hearts. The masters often desperately cling to fading European pleasantries and customs, hoping to stave off the heat of the space they share with the slaves.

James manages to foreground a feminine perspective and weaves a tale full of brutality, fire, pain and suffering that gripped me into turning the pages. In fact, while reading the novel, there were moments when the women simultaneously inspired awe and fear in me.

However, there were also moments when I became equally frustrated as I felt that the novel was not satisfying in its delivery. Indeed, I felt that the novel often teased me with glimmers of deft story telling only to disappoint.

The use of the first person narrative voice, while deployed to lend credence to the tale, stumbles at key moments.  The first major pitfall occurs where the narrator’s story had to be complemented by the recount of Overseer Quinn’s spy-mission into Kingston.  He follows Miss Isobel, the fiancée of his employer and good friend Master Humphrey, to uncover the secrets behind her nightly journeys into the city. The insertion of Quinn’s tale and his voice jars at this point. The first person narration, up to now, was the only voice in the novel and it had not been previously substituted. The insertion at that particular point is recognition, perhaps, that the first person narrative technique was not strong enough to propel the novel through particular plot maneuvers.

The other major pitfall was that the narrative voice did not belong to the central character herself. Instead, as we learn at the end of the novel, the narrator is Lilith’s daughter via her “relationship” with Quinn. The use of Lilith’s daughter’s first person narration in effect removes the reader from the inner workings of Lilith’s minds. While reading the text, I felt that the narrator was not, or maybe could not, dredge deeper into Lilith’s inner workings, not enough to make her a sympathetic character and certainly not enough to understand her rebellion against the Night Women, who were plotting freedom for all slaves, or her love  for Master Humphrey and then for Master Quinn. Indeed, even while reading of the atrocities meted out to the women of the Coulibre and Montpelier estates, I came away feeling as though their situation was being relayed through a perspective twice removed from their individual pain. As a result, the Night Women’s tales of woes, at the hands of their masters and fellow slaves, read like the tales of suffering from other slave narratives and works of fiction which have focused on slavery in the West Indies and North America. Frederick Douglass, Ashton Warner and Mary Prince come to mind, so too do Jean Rhys’  Wide Sargasso Sea, Alex Haley’s Queen, Toni Morrison’s  Beloved and, more recently Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads. His portrayal of these women did not venture far beyond particular tropes within slavery based narratives: the noble slave, the savage slave, the long suffering slave woman, the brutal master and overseer, the house slave, the mad or corrupted creole woman and  the mad slave mistress.

This leads then to the question of audience. To a regular reader of Caribbean literature and student of Caribbean History, Marlon James’ novel did not really deviate from the script. His work is sprinkled with slight variations of the mentioned types. I found that they seldom however, rose above their type to make fundamental contact.

The last point then leads me to conclude that perhaps James is targeting a different type of audience, that he seeks to lay bare the atrocities of slavery to an audience that has not been exposed enough to this aspect of human history. This is especially important considering recent passage of laws of a particular United State banning the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools and the more recent attempts by a board of education in another state to remove words from their history lessons which refer to slavery and the slave trade. The implications of such tactics for future generations are grave.

I can imagine a scenario ten or so years in the future where a teenager, who has gone through a system of education that did not teach her of  the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, is arrested by the disquieting stare of a half-clad loam colored woman on the jacket of The Book of Night Women. I can see her as she picks up the novel, and is entrapped by its lush paratext. I can see as she journeys into the world of 18th century slave colony Jamaica. I can imagine what such a journey can do to the unexposed mind, adjusting her hitherto innocent world sense, causing her to examine the nature of human beings. I can see her being moved by the reading of this novel to search for similar novels. I can see her world sense changing.

It is in such a scenario, then, The Book of Night Women will have served an important purpose, which may, in the end redeem it in the face of its short-comings.

©2010 Debra Providence

Advertisements