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The Book
of Night Women

 

 

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James is a harrowing, unforgettable journey into the history of slavery in Jamaica in the eighteenth century, told from the point of view of Lilith, half-black and half-white. Both poet and reporter, the author has conceived of the entire story in patois as he traces the stages of a slave uprising, a feat that pays off: Readers fall easily into the slipstream of the color and cadence, and the result is a seamless marvel of artistry. This is work of the most supreme literary quality, daring to transform language into such an original realm that readers come away haunted, short of breath, and staggered with the sort of visceral impact that reminds us why we read: Not merely to understand other lives or worlds, but to feel them.

Though challenging, often obscene, and devastatingly graphic in places, and though James truly earns the overused phrase “unflinching gaze,” the book’s handling of violence shies away from being leering or gratuitous, even as we sense that the author is duty-bound to report the truth of oppression as it historically occurred. This is fiction’s power: To conjure, through character and story, not just the details of human horrors but also how their truth plays out upon the skin, against the backdrop of the world, and upon the hidden emotions of us all. There’s no hiding in any era, even one removed from the time being scrutinized.

One of the most remarkable qualities here is the careful layering of all classes and types. It will occur to readers that they have perhaps never read a book about slavery in which the slaves themselves are portrayed as prone to jealousy, nastiness, vulgarity, and ruthlessness: as human beings normally can be, especially when trapped in a system that twists the human spirit. Lilith, our heroine, is not always likable, and the slaves elevated to the foreman-like role of being “Johnny-jumpers” add complications to any desire to classify the portraits easily. We witness the self-interest of the maroons and Robert Quinn’s frustrations as an Irishman considered lower-class; we flinch, though not completely devoid of sympathy, at selfish Miss Isobel’s mad attempts to leap over the gulf toward what she views as “the other side.”

Lilith and Robert’s love story creates the book’s tumultuous heart; his audacious decision to desire Lilith, fueled in part by his own status as an outsider, is tense from start to finish and, in addition to blending the poetry in the service of vivid story-telling power and sturdy pacing, we arrive at the cry for peace that makes the book worthy of this award: We’re given examples of how ordinary people, in extraordinarily vicious circumstances, can reach out, can stop the torrential demands of old hatred and old history. Though it’s chilling—and believable—that Quinn, outside the house, disavows Lilith to the point of allowing her to be whipped to near death, the gift of his love in private surely plays a role in her decision, when riots engulf Jamaica, to see her white father not as cruel and arrogant but as a man frightened of death, and she stays to defend him. Quinn will lose his life, due to the forces unleashed, but he has, despite his sins, put forth a measure of redemptive, healing care into an ill world.

Though the novel is harsh, it is worth recalling that it is based upon the implacably awful truths of the history of the treatment of slaves. There is no way to make this material less than the ghastly nightmare that it is. If we need to be reminded of who we have been, we also can take some solace in discovering that the human spirit can fight back even in the most poisonous of circumstances. This is a definition of courage, and the book paints a stunning and detailed map of how we divide ourselves from one another (not merely in slavery, but in any group, any social network) and how we might work our ways through, and across, and beyond.

— Katherine Vaz, 2010 finalist judge


2010 Fiction Winner

Click to see award video
Click to see video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Marlon James
The Book of Night Women

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1970. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil (Akashic Books, 2005) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The novel was published in the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy in 2008. A new novel, The Book of Night Women was published by Riverhead Books, in 2009.

He graduated from The University of the West Indies in 1991 with a B.A in Literature, and Wilkes University in 2006 with an M.A. in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Iron Balloons (2006), Bronx Noir (2007) and Silent Voices (2007). His non-fiction has appeared in the Caribbean Review of Books.

He has taught at the Calabash international Literary Festival Workshop in Kingston Jamaica for two years. More recently he has taught at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City and was a judge for the PEN Beyond Margins Award. Presently a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Macalester College, St. Paul, he sets foot down in Jamaica, New York City and The Twin Cities so is hesitant to say he lives anywhere.

* * *

“It can be lonely, believing that books can still change how we think. So thank goodness for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation; for reminding us that the book is still our most eloquent tool to speak truth to power, and to bear witness to the good and not so good in human nature. It was an honour enough to be nominated for this great and necessary award, and I am humbled that I was chosen from such deeply impressive company.”

— Marlon James                        

Special Features:

Listen to a 30-minute interview with Marlon James conducted by Vick Mickunas for the "Book Nook" program on WYSO, Public Radio for the Miami Valley, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Listen to a 5-minute interview with Marlon James conducted by Euan Kerr of Minnesota Public Radio.

 

 
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