December 2018 Open Book Group – The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James

I welcomed the chance to moderate The Book of the Night Women by Marlon James, a Man Booker Prize-winning author.

A historical novel set in 1785, Lilith is one of six mulatto house slaves born on Humphrey Wilson’s Montpellier estate in Jamaica. Their mothers were all raped by the same overseer Jack Wilkins.

Through Lilith, speaking in Jamaican patois, we enter into the world of two plantation owning estates. James does not spare our sensibilities as he describes the horror and degradation inflicted, and endured, by all sections of the societies living in these insular, lawless communities. No one, black, mulatto, poor white, rich white person, is immune. All are morally bankrupt. While it was ultimately fruitless, James does also show how humans’ need for love is universal with white overseer Robert Quinn trying to build a home with Lilith as his quasi-wife. Something Lilith knows cannot last.

The six half-sisters meet as the Night Women to practice Obeah (black magic) and plot a rebellion to gain their freedom. The rebellion fails with the predictable devastating consequences for its all the protagonists, except for Lilith. Despite the cruelty he has shown, she saves her father and in return he saves her from certain death.

The discussion opened with our views on the writing.  We all enjoy the patois once we had become attuned to its rhythm. A review had recommended the audio version which would certainly bring it to life. It was interesting to observe that the language changed to English when we reached Humphrey’s house. There was a subtle relief to the reader as we were back in our comfort zone, but a guilty jolt to find yourself in tune with slave owners. Isobel, a Creole woman, uses both English and patois increasing our empathy as she is neither black nor white. James’ quality prose and strong characterisation made it an absorbing experience.

There was a division in the group over the level of graphic violence. Was it verging on torture porn? A view quickly dismissed. However, for many it was overplayed. We got the idea the situation brutalised everyone in it. Did we really need several pages description whippings, rape and garrotting following some minor misdemeanour? Others, with well-hidden irritation, felt it was completely appropriate if we were to gain any understanding of this world. All too often information we receive is sanitised. We hide from the realities of others’ lives. What do we think is really happening in Syria? What conditions do we tacitly accept to enjoy $5 fast fashion? Slavery, both economic and sexual,  is still practiced in many countries. James pulls no punches to get our attention.

Richard Flanagan’s Long Road to the Narrow North was referenced as another novel confronting the reader with man’s  inhumanity to man when the rule of law has broken down

One member accepted these arguments, though she would not recommend the book to those who read before going to sleep! She would have liked more context on how the events depicted in the novel fitted into historical context. Another member filled us in on the lucrative triangular of trade goods, slaves and sugar between England, Africa, The Caribbean and England. The rebellion and the establishment’s response were based on actual ones experienced in Jamaica and Haiti. The Maroon settlements of escaped slaves living in the hills were also factually accurate.

We liked to imagine that the narrator Lovey Quinn, Lilith’s daughter, was a freed slave. Slavery was abolished in 1833. We hoped Lovey broke the “circle” that James alludes to in the opening paragraph of many of the chapters.

We considered the strict hierarchy of that society. The landless Irish overseers such as  Robert Quinn, held a lower status than the Negroes as they had no intrinsic value to the landowners. Isobel who, despite her best efforts social climbing efforts, could never marry Humphrey

Someone questioned why the rebellion and the black magic centred around the women. Where were the male slaves?  It was pointed out that the men working in cane fields would not have been able to talk together and would have been swiftly censored if caught. Whereas the women could meet more freely in the house and possibly plotting the rebellion was realistic. One member noted black magic is still being practised in Surinam

A challenging and important book, well worth the journey. Note to self; next time, Gillian, maybe schedule something more festive for our Xmas meeting

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