If you pick up The Book of Night Women, you might lose a little sleep. The second novel from Kingston native Marlon James will having you flipping pages, thirsty for more story, late into the night.
On a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late 1700s, a slave dies in childbirth. But the baby, called Lilith, lives. As she grows up, it becomes apparent that a dark power lies within her, and she catches the eye of the leader of a group of women. They meet at night and practice magic—and make plans. Amid the events of the novel and Lilith’s tragic life, there are questions stretched taut across the background: can these women upend their dehumanizing lives—can they free themselves? Before it’s all over, we’ll find out how cruelty can break a person, fracture a soul. And we’ll find ourselves just as hungry for justice as the night women.
Lilith is one of the best characters in recent memory. She starts the book appropriately smart-mouthed and “uppity,” and as she grows into womanhood, she expectedly grows hardened, quieter. But her ability to hold on to her own soul, her ability to love, makes her not only endearing, but also a symbol of spirit and strength. James doesn’t spare anything in depicting the brutality of slavery. The violence is both horrifying and deeply saddening, but it spurs the reader to have hope in the characters and faith in the story—as well as the author.
Well-crafted and beautifully written in the patois of 19th-century Jamaica, The Book of Night Women seems likely to find itself on the short list for several literary awards (James’ first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize). It’s certainly worthy of a book club read: nearly all of the characters are so morally complicated that they will inspire plenty of discussion. And with its unique rhythm, this book almost asks to be read out loud. The Book of Night Women is not an easy novel. But it’s one that’s rich and true, and it will stay in your mind for weeks to come.
Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.