Riverhead: 418 pp., $26.95
"People say that Montpelier Estate was so huge that you could tell you're there as soon as the wind start blowing to the east," declares the narrator of Marlon James' second novel, "The Book of Night Women." The plantation of which James writes, on the east coast of Jamaica, is populated by thousands of slaves, some from Africa, some Jamaica-born, and some women whose bodies are the living chronicle of rape and power. The year is 1785.
"The Book of Night Women" is not merely a historical novel. It is a book as heavily peopled and dark as the night in this isolated and brutal place. It is a canticle of love and hate: "Still, though, hate and love be closer cousin than like and dislike," says Homer, the most powerful woman on Montpelier, where slaves are given fanciful Greek names by their British owners.
On the opening page, the narrator describes a baby girl named Lilith, born to a dying 13-year-old slave raped by a white overseer. By the end of the novel, Lilith has become Lovey, the pet name she receives from another overseer, Robert Quinn.
But Lilith is never lovey. She can't be. She is a murderess.
She is one of the night women, six half-sisters -- all the progeny of that first overseer, the brutal Jack Wilkins. His daughters set in motion an uprising whose horror and retaliation turn the entire world of slavery upside down for a day.
Even as a child, Lilith is "too spirited for a nigger girl black like pitch with legs too smooth for a slave and hair too woolly and lips too thick like fruit and eyes that seem robbed from white lady." Still, until she becomes a young woman, filled with rage at unfairness or belittlement, she doesn't know what she's capable of.
She kills seven people. She kills by hand, wild and efficient, as if the perfect dark spirit of death leads her. In a sense, it does: Her white father, she discovers, tortured and beheaded a young male runaway, then disfigured and raped the slave's sister, who gave birth to Lilith at the same moment that she died. Lilith is black and white, victim and murderer, powerless and aching for some measure of control.
Control is the ethos of the white in Jamaica, where slavery existed on a much larger scale than in the U.S. or even the other Caribbean colonies. "Thirty-three negro for every one white man" is the refrain constantly heard. To ensure order and pacify the incessant fears of the white owners, overseers and "Johnny-jumpers," black enforcers licensed to brutalize slaves, have free rein on Montpelier.
Sex is a weapon, a method, a shackle. An act of violence and power.
When Lilith is 14, a young Johnny-jumper named Paris tries to rape her. "Big, big hero. Massa Jack say Paris stop the Trojan War," he says, and then dismissively, degradingly, adds, "Make haste, cow," expecting her to submit.
For her, death is preferable to submission.
Lilith pours boiling tea over Paris' face and kills him with his own sword. "[N]obody that young," James writes, "must have so much wickedness. Stop stop stop. That was the first time she feel the darkness. True darkness and true womanness that make man scream."
Lilith may sound like a madwoman. But she is a teenage girl. She's smart enough to be taught to read when she is taken to the main house by Homer, who wants to work with Lilith's darkness, and she's sentimental enough to want the romance she sees in a picture torn from a children's book -- a fairy tale about white people.
In James' Jamaica, however, the white people are fearsome creatures. What the slaves learn about God on Christmas is indicative: "Seem that if baby get left in manger he would be scratch up, bite up and dead by the third day. But white people think this be the greatest thing. The baby grow up and they kill him, and white people think that be even greater . . . nobody kill for fun like backra."
Lilith makes bargains that involve death and spells. Her pride and scorn lead to an accident, for which she is whipped until her back is "scarred as a quilt."