January 2009

Aysha Somasundaram


The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women weds several genres of writing -- historical fiction, a slave narrative, and, perhaps, most unexpectedly, pulp fiction. James makes several choices that might be characterized as controversial in The Book of Night Women. He writes from the perspective of a slave woman in a colloquial, liberally patois-laced voice to tell a story spanning two households and several generations in a lengthy opus. Any one of these technical or stylistic choices could easily capsize the story. Instead, the novel coheres as an unfiltered, instructive social commentary as to the brutality and vagaries of slavery but one that manages to also be a peculiarly enjoyable read. James’s account is unflinchingly deliberate in cataloguing and interweaving acts of obscene violence, contrition, alliances of convenience and necessity and intimacy, replete with intrigue, romance, trysts, the mystical (Obeah) and adventure.

The language itself requires some comment and consideration. Set in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century, the narration and dialogue are all imbued with and reflective of a wide variety of speakers -- slave (house, field, Johnny jumpers, and plantation- or Africa-born), Maroon and colonizer (Creole, British or Irish). In the hands of a less nimble or confident writer, James’s writing style might be choppy, showy, clumsy or even, ultimately, indecipherable. Instead, though some adjustment and logical inferences are required of the uninitiated reader, James’s choice of syntax and his ability to subtly shift tone and tenor based on the speaker and context enrich the narrative. At its best, The Book of Night Women hones lyricism in the crudest of spoken words.
The heft of The Book of Night Women is yet another element that could undercut the storyline. Somehow, instead, the contours and expansiveness are wholly unobtrusive. The length and ancillary narratives all seem necessary to the unfurling narratives contained in The Book of Night Women; none feels extraneous. Finally, there are a few arguably campy elements to The Book of Night Women. Lilith, the heroine, is green eyed and much is made of this immutable characteristic -- a feature shared by a few of her father’s other offspring. Most, if not all, of the Montpelier slaves have names like Circe, Gorgon and Homer due to the predilection of former overseer for Greek literature. But none of these mild contrivances disrupt the flow of the narrative. In fact, for some these details might add an undercurrent of tragedy and otherworldliness.

James is a skilled storyteller who does not seek refuge in simple archetypes. His evocations of human beings and interpersonal relationships are messy, complex and, often, contradictory. The Book of Night Women does what good fiction is uniquely situated to do -- it revisits and reinvents the past in order to expose and indict inhumanity and hypocrisy. James also manages to be equally attentive in his nuanced renderings of compassion and hope.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Riverhead Books
ISBN- 978-1-59448-857-3
417 pages