This blog is a reader's journal, going back now for four years' worth of novels. I only read books that I want to read. Usually they're either African novels, Irish novels, or novels that are getting good press or awards and that look like they're up my alley. The point is they're pretty much all novels that I enjoy (ones that are to my taste), and they're also mostly quite good, since they passed through a least a filter or two to get read by me and posted about here. Every now and then, though, a novel comes along that shows what a really good book is like. It stands out all the more from standing out in this group of good, personally-selected books. Marlon James' The Book of Night Women (2009, Riverhead Books) is one of these standouts.
This is an excellent novel that anyone with any interest in African-American literature or in the literature of Atlantic slavery must read. Set on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late 1700s it tells the story of Lilith, a young slave whose green eyes are a legacy of her father, a white overseer. It is a coming of age story as Lilith must learn what it is to be a woman, a black, a slave and a half-caste. She learns all of these things over the course of several years when she becomes a "big house" slave, learns about her family history, and lives through a bloody slave revolt. The story is riveting and I will resist the temptation to go over much of it here. I would much prefer that you buy the book and enjoy it for yourself.
Over the past several decades a great deal of research on the slave trade and on the communities of slaves and slave-owners has opened up this lost world to historians and novelists alike. Toni Morrison and Maryse Conde are two novelists who have pioneered reconstructive and reimagined work with this material, and they also happen to be two of the best writers working in North America today. Now Marlon James indisputably joins their company with his passionate dedication to getting it as right as possible. (Edward P. Jones' The Known World was the subject of an earlier post here, there is also a post on the period piece Sab by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.)
James has written this book using a seemingly omniscient narrator whose identity is revealed at the end of the book. This narrator uses an impressive reconstruction of the black Caribbean patois of the time. Reading the first page I thought I was in for a murky Faulkneresque experiment but in fact James pulls off the ambitious linguistic job ably. His research is most impressive, from African vodun to the structure of plantations and even the sailor brogues of the lowly white slavedrivers sounds startlingly authentic.
He also avoids, apparently without effort although in fact the effort must have been intense, sentimentalizing the blacks or presenting two-dimensional whites. Miss Isobel, the brilliant, psychotic Creole mistress, is one of the most memorable characters I've read in a long time, and the relationship between Lilith and Robert Quinn the Irish overseer captures expertly the hopelessness of both "lovers," stumbled in to an impossible love.
Really don't miss this one.