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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: The Book of Night Women, Marlon James

It's the turn of the century in the West Indies. In patient, painstaking strokes, the narrator of this book tells the story of Lilith, a slave born on a sugar cane plantation, and her fellow slaves on Montpelier Estate. 

I should start by saying that this is not an easy book to read. Think 12 Years a Slave but arguably more horrific. In fact, I almost stopped a few times. It's not fun to read about whippings, rape and killing. But I kept going because a) the writing was so good and b) stories like this need to be told, and shouldn't be avoided just because they are uncomfortable. 

The overarching plot is about the conspiracy of "Night Women", a plan to have multiple estates in Jamaica rebel at the same time to try and drive the whites out and set up their own republic. This is the undercurrent rather than at the fore of the story, however. The main focus is on Lilith, her development and her struggle to be reconciled with the life of a slave when her spirit just won't agree. Plenty of things happen to try and tame that 'wickedness' (as the whites have it), even transferring her to another estate, but Lilith doesn't lose that inherent sense of this is not right and she is meant for more. 

Homer, the head house slave (even amongst slaves there is a hierarchy - field slaves are at the bottom of the heap, with house slaves at the top), tries to teach Lilith what she must do and how to keep her head down while still bringing her into the Night Women conspiracy, but Lilith doesn't always pay heed. Homer, whom was brought over from Africa, gives Lilith pause to wonder whether it is more painful to be born a slave and never know freedom, or to have lived free but have it taken away. 

The overwhelming feeling I got while reading this book was an unfathomable sense of how human beings are capable of such cruelty, both those inflicting it and others looking at it thinking it is acceptable. I also think it's a really important kind of book to read in today's climate, when racial and religious tensions run high. It's crucial that we never again get to a stage where we become desensitized to, or ignore, these kinds of horrors. 

It also poses larger questions of what it means to be human and who gets to decide. An interesting point raised was that, on most estates, there could be about 30 slaves to every white person. Overwhelming odds in favour of the slaves, so why did they accept the status quo? It's a testament - obviously not in a good way - to how well Westerners were able to use fear and fear of pain to bring down powerful, proud people.

This is a book that is hard to put down, and a brilliant piece of literature. I would just recommend a strong stomach - and not reading it before bed.

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