Marlon James’s Booker winning ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings‘ was one of my top reads of last year. Not only was it a virtuosic view of a time and place I knew little about, it was written with such brio the life of the characters and countries depicted just danced off the page. I also loved the way James managed to find female voices within a very male culture and story, and immediately marked down his earlier novel ‘The Book of Night Woman’ as one of my must reads for 2016.
If ‘A Brief History’ told an epic story of public crimes and responsibility this novel contains a more private story. It narrates the life of Lilith, born into slavery in Jamaica and with her own specific history and part to play in the turbulent years ahead. Lilith’s story is possibly unique, she’s given an almost mythic introduction and the narrator is clearly in awe of her character and talents. On the other hand, she may also be a representative of generations of women, doomed to live their lives as the property of others, with only the most restricted and precarious opportunities for self-expression and agency. The book carefully balances the specific and the universal with an assurance that preempts the more spectacularly sprawling structure of James’ later novel.
In truth, the whole novel can be seen as an accomplished balancing act, with beautiful lyrical prose on one hand, and graphic historical descriptions of abuse on the other. Given its setting, this was never going to be a story for the faint-hearted and the evidently meticulous research only makes it a more challenging read. Lilith moves from a relatively safe childhood home a to favoured position as house-slave but this theoretically privileged slave life-style does not prevent her from the most intense physical and emotional torture. I wouldn’t say the book is unrelentingly bleak, only that it is too deeply rooted in its historical setting to ever escape into comforting fiction.
As Lilith tries to navigate the violent powers around her, the novel shows that no one acts in isolation. Intersecting, and often interrupting, her story is a female-lead conspiracy to overthrow the oppressive slave regime. Lilith has her own role to play in the uprising, though you’ll have to read the book to learn exactly how she responds to the conflict. As for me, I’m left in further awe at James’ ability to make convincing fiction of complex history. His debut novel, ‘Jim Crow’s Devil’ is making its way up the to-be-read pile, then I’ll just have to await whatever he publishes next with eager anticipation.
A side note – a major reason I’m so pleased to have read this book now is that it coincided with my listening to a wonderful history of the Haitian revolution. The only successful slave uprising in history, French controlled Saint-Domingue was just next door to the British colony of Jamaica. At the same time as the French were throwing of the shackles of despotic monarchy and cutting off lots of heads, the rebels in Saint-Domingue were on their way to ousting the white masters and setting up as an independent nation. Meanwhile, the British looked on in dread, wondering how far this trend of revolution would spread. This is all going on in the background to ‘The Book of Night Women.’ Check it out at the superb Revolutions Podcast – highly, highly recommended listening.