Holy cow, this book was difficult to rate – almost as difficult as it was to read. But this makes perfect sense, as Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women is not a satisfying book. The story it tells is frustrating, disturbing, and, ultimately, deeply unsatisfying. My knee-jerk reaction to feeling anger and frustration at the end of a book is to give it a low rating, but this doesn’t feel right for The Book of Night Women. I think this book is meant to disturb readers – to make them slog through a series of inhuman horrors before leaving them bereft at the end.
The Book of Night Women follows Lilith, a slave born on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the eighteenth century. When Lilith kills a man for trying to rape her, she attracts the attention of a group of slaves bent on revolution. As she becomes more enmeshed in their scheme, Lilith struggles to reconcile her loyalty to the other slaves with her morals and identity.
The Book of Night Women is, quite frankly, brutal. This should come as no surprise – it is about slavery, after all. That being said, this book is ruthless even when its subject matter is taken into consideration. After reading it, I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained for a little perspective, and I can confidently say Night Women makes Django look like a PBS after-school special. Violence abounds, with slaves being casually terrorized in myriad creative ways. Beatings, lynchings, and rapes are so common that the slaves become inured to the shock of them. The N-word is dropped so often that if you made a word-cloud from the book, the largest, central word would be… well. You get the picture.
While The Book of Night Women is unrelentingly grim, it does have strong messages to impart. Readers who can stomach dark subject matter may enjoy the realistic depiction of conflict, which finds Lilith grappling with a sense of duty that goes against her moral compass. James does not write morality as a cut-and-dry concept, but as something relative and elusive. Lilith commits terrible crimes with arguably good reasoning and shows impressive mercy for one of the worst characters imaginable. The white slave owners have brief moments of humanity and the slaves aren’t depicted as sinless victims, but as complicated individuals capable of perpetrating despicable acts. Even the romantic subplot is morally ambiguous. Nothing is simple and everything is frustrating.
The Book of Night Women is not complicated by dark subject matter alone. This book is narrated in a Jamaican patois, so those not used to reading dialects may struggle to sift through varying verb tenses and dropped determiners. It takes time to develop an ear for the dialect and concentration not to lose the thread of the plot when deciphering it. The audiobook – narrated beautifully by Robin Miles – is a fine alternative for readers struggling with patois.
In short, The Book of Night Women is a harsh, gruesome portrait of a harsh, gruesome time in history. It is difficult to read, difficult to stomach, and difficult to digest at the end. Despite all that, it tells a powerful story.