"The Book of Night Women," by Marlon James

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By Gail Lumet Buckley,
author of "The Hornes: An American Family" and "American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm"
Tuesday, February 17, 2009


By Marlon James

Riverhead. 417 pp. $26.95

"Every Negro walk in a circle," says the narrator of "The Book of Night Women." The phrase is repeated throughout Marlon James's darkly powerful second novel. It seems to mean that black life in the Americas was a vicious circle, full of the terrible things that whites did to blacks and that blacks did to whites and to blacks because of whites. "What a terrible thing 'pon this world the white man must be," says the woman Homer, the head slave at Montpelier, an early 19th-century Jamaican sugar plantation. "What a wicked, terrible, brutal creature, nothing no wicked like he so. That is the only thing they can teach we. Watch today when they see how much we learn." The book is full of such racial anger.

Homer is leader of the Night Women: six hate-poisoned black half sisters, all disfigured by whippings, who have been meeting at night for years to plan an apocalyptic slave rebellion among neighboring plantations. The women, several of whom have green eyes, are all house slaves at Montpelier and daughters of the former overseer, green-eyed Jack Wilkins.

Homer recruits a spirited, green-eyed teenager named Lilith, who has killed a would-be rapist. She teaches Lilith to read. When a person can read, "she can plan, if is even for just a minute," says Homer, who has one book, a stolen copy of "Joseph Andrews," by Henry Fielding. Unlike Joseph, a free white footman, Lilith can't walk away from the amorous advances of the master. She soon finds a copy of "The Faerie Queene," perhaps identifying with the female knight of Chastity, who falls in love with the knight of Justice when she sees his face in a magic mirror -- the way Lilith fell in love with Montpelier's young Master Humphrey.

Besides learning to read, Lilith is further educated in killing and domestic terror. All slavery was cruel, but none was as brutal and inhumane as in the West Indies, where whites were vastly outnumbered. Black life was cheap, especially since roving bands of armed runaways called Maroons captured new runaways for a fee.

But in the midst of murder and arson, Lilith turns from romantic literature to romantic love with Quinn, a humanistic Irish overseer who has his own issues with the British. "Call me Robert," not "massa," he orders Lilith. With feelings for Quinn, Lilith has second thoughts about killing all whites on the plantation. Reading has made her wise as well as romantic. She warns Homer that the rebellion is suicidal. But Homer must prove that she is in charge, and the revolt erupts.

Presumably because Lilith has known love, she is able to forgive the father who raped her 13-year-old mother -- but kept Lilith from the cane fields and the whip. She tries to save his life in the inevitable blood bath during which blacks eviscerate their masters and victorious whites take revenge with mass roastings and the gibbet. It's another vicious circle. The book's narrator, speaking a sort of American pidgin, is the daughter of Lilith and Quinn. Her mother taught her to read and write. The circle of subversive black women begins anew -- one hopes without whips.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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