The Book of Night Women
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."
She is only 14.
When she is sent to a run-down estate named Coulibre, the whipping and murder of slaves turns her numb for a time. But after she is unconsciously obstinate to her new master, his reaction leads her to revolt, and the results are horrific, especially after she realizes the power she feels upon killing again.
She is sent back to Montpelier, where Robert Quinn takes her as his mistress and attempts, truly, to love her. James' writing is at its best in the scenes at their small house, where they try to be humans who care for each other, where to Lilith's fearful astonishment, Quinn kisses her. He tries to make her say his first name, which a slave will never do. "You commanding slave to be free?" she asks, and he responds, "Yes, I command it. You must call me by the name me mother gave me when we're in this room."
But the world outside the room is still Montpelier. Lilith continues to meet the mysterious night women in a cave, where Homer leads the six half-sisters in planning a revolt.
Lilith's inevitable choice must be made as Homer's plan for the entire east side of the island to rise up comes closer. The final battle is about nothing less than control over individual fate and life.
Homer says, "What a terrible thing pon this world the white man must be. What a wicked, terrible brutal creature, nothing no wicked like he so."
Lilith responds, "Me know what moving you and you not out to build nothing."
"They kill the motherness out of me," Homer laments, and that is the heart of this large, disturbing and fine novel, which kept me awake, gave me bad dreams for days, and which in spite of that I am grateful to have read.
For it is this genetic pain that is essential -- racial violence, the mingling of races and motherhood. America, which is suddenly considering race and legacy, has a history of sexual violence during slavery. "Coromantee blood that never know slavery mix with white blood that always know freedom" is James' description of Lilith, and how many thousands fit a similar heritage?
To kill the "motherness" through rape and child-stealing and murder is to invite ultimate anarchy. Sex is power, and rape a weapon of war still, as it has been in Nanking, Bosnia and even now is used in Sudan.
"The Book of Night Women" is a chant, using repetition and verse. Several chapters begin thusly: "Every Negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will."
People walk in a circle, as well. In the novel, the British militia arrive in Jamaica to help crush insurgencies. Last month, Radio Jamaica reported that police units were sent by France to the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, where protests over low wages and high prices turned violent.
The lasting inheritances of slavery cannot be forgotten, and through novels such as this one, history is felt. There are crowds of characters, many subplots, and a lot of history and geography to keep track of. That is how life on a huge plantation would have been.
The novel can be unrelentingly violent, and the litany of terror, torture and revenge is long and horrifically detailed. But if that seems rather grim, it's nothing in comparison with how it must have been to the slaves.
Straight's most recent novel, "A Million Nightingales," is about a mixed-race woman in 19th century Louisiana.