I wasn’t present when my father passed away, and lately I’ve been having really strange dreams in which my father starts out healthy and robust then suddenly experiences a health crisis. The dream ends just as I’m coming to his aid, of course. A couple of nights ago I dreamt that my father was a kind of cyborg—he had wires and nozzles on his body that otherwise looked fit and whole. We were in a house full of people, and as my father slid into crisis mode—one of his wires got caught on something and his heart started to fail—my aunt and I scrambled to help him and these children I’d never seen before pushed closer to see what was happening. I finally tried to move them back and this one boy looked at me and said, “I guess you’re the parent now.” And then I woke up. Bizarre, right? I suppose not witnessing my father’s death means I’m likely going to dream it for the rest of my life, and in my dreams a part of me must want it to be sudden when in reality, my father’s decline was slow and painful. He withered from a strong, athletic man into a frail husk of his former self—and I wouldn’t even know that much except my older sister forced me to approach the coffin during the wake. This latest dream stayed with me the entire day—for once, blocking out The Book of Night Women, which has also lingered in my mind. I’m not sure how to recommend this book, or to whom. There are issues, to be sure: as I said before, there’s plenty of profanity, and some feel the language doesn’t accurately reflect how slave women would have talked on a Jamaican plantation in 1801. But the story!!! I was wary at first because male authors don’t always get it right, and it bothered me that the women in the novel were so antagonistic toward one another. There’s very little tenderness in this novel, but I imagine that’s how life might have been on a Caribbean sugar plantation; slavery was harsher in that region, and slaves were often “seasoned” in the Caribbean before being sent to North America. The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a dark-skinned mulatta born with her white overseer father’s vivid green eyes. Her mother—viciously raped and mutilated at 13—dies in childbirth, and as an act of penance, her father shelters Lilith for the first portion of her life. She knows nothing of her true parentage, and lives with a deranged slave man and a slave woman who earns money by selling sexual services. Lilith remains quite innocent until she turns 14 and is ordered to work in the fields. She feigns illness the first day, and is purposely left alone by her cruel adoptive mother only to face a rapist in the form of a “Johnny-jumper”—a black male slave given power to discipline (and otherwise abuse) field slaves. Rather than submit, Lilith fights back and kills her would-be rapist—first scalding his face with hot tea, then hacking off his limbs as he blindly attempts to cling to her. When Homer, head house slave, surveys the bloody scene, she realizes Lilith is someone who might be useful to her down the line. She agrees to hide Lilith in the kitchen cellar, and for a year Homer is able to protect Lilith from the Johnny-jumpers’ revenge. She cannot stop Lilith from foolishly attempting to seduce the white master of the plantation, however…and this is where the narrative turned for me. Lilith never really expresses lasting gratitude to Homer, and Homer threatens the girl regularly but seems to otherwise accept her insolent attitude. Lilith thinks she can become the master’s “chere amie” but her wealthy, white rival (Miss Isobel) isn’t about to let that happen. Lilith ignores Homer’s warnings, uses Obeah to work her way up in the household, and ultimately makes the worst impression on “Massa Humphrey”—after accidentally dousing a white lady with hot soup, Lilith is publicly beaten by Humphrey and then tossed to the white drivers who gang rape her. Homer and 5 of Lilith’s half-sisters (all daughters of the rapist white overseer, Jack Wilkins) tend to Lilith’s wounds, but they can’t prevent the endless whippings that follow—or her transfer to Coulibre, home of Miss Isobel and her equally sadistic mother.
So as you can see, a LOT happens in this novel; four hundred pages cover about 2 years in Lilith’s life, and she rapidly transforms from a “pickney” or child to a woman capable of standing up to the powerful, embittered Homer. Marlon James doesn’t skimp on details—his narrator and the slave women discuss violence in graphic terms, and Lilith soon realizes that the British people she reads about in stolen books aren’t at all like the ones she’s forced to serve every day. As her situation worsens at Coulibre, Lilith begins to experience “the darkness;” she has terrible dreams and is visited by a night spirit—a woman who terrifies her, yet also teaches her how to survive. While being abused yet again by her new master, Lilith succumbs to the darkness and kills him; she effects the murder of her mistress as well, and then torches the big house to cover up her crimes. Two white children and their slave nanny die in the fire, and three innocent slaves are tortured and killed after confessing to the murders Lilith committed. Lilith returns to work with Homer in the kitchen, but is haunted by the smell of ash and the voices of the children who died in the flames. Was she justified? Wouldn’t they have grown up to be just as brutal as their parents? Homer tries again to bring Lilith into the group of six night women who are plotting rebellion across the island. Lilith clearly has the ability to kill, but her remorse keeps her from committing to the plot. She mistrusts the other women (her half-sisters) and suddenly becomes the lover/house slave/protector of Quinn, the Irish overseer that replaced her rapist father. I’ve given enough away, but you will definitely read right through to the end because the novel takes some unexpected turns. James rejects the notion of the “pure” white lady, and there’s certainly no traditional coupling convention in this story. There is, however, a twisted expression of slave-master loyalty and compassion that I didn’t quite buy…and if anyone’s read the novel, I’d love to discuss the conclusion. Would a female author have written an ending like that? Would there have been more tenderness, more sympathy between these women? Could Lilith really achieve all this at age 16? Whatever its shortcomings, this is one of the most compelling narratives I’ve read in a long while. Not an easy read, but a book that was hard for me to put down.