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Book Review: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (The Real Help Reading Project)

October 8, 2011 5 comments

Painting of a black woman.Summary:
This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother.  Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike.  Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household.  Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul.  But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.

Discussion:
This is the third book and second fictional work for The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy, and it totally blew me away.  A reading experience like this is what makes reading projects/challenges such a pleasure to participate in.  I never would have picked up this book off the shelf by myself, but having it on the list for the project had me seek it out and determined to read it within a set length of time.  Reading the blurb, there’s no way I would imagine identifying with the protagonist so strongly, but I did, and that’s what made for such a powerful experience for me.  The more I read literature set in a variety of times and places, the more I see what we as people have in common, instead of our differences.

There is so much subtle commentary within this book to ponder that I’m finding it difficult to unpack and lay out for you all.  Part of me wants to just say, “Go read this book. Just trust me on this one,” but then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a book blogger, would I?

Depicted much more clearly here than in any of our reads so far is how detrimental a society based upon racism is for all involved.  There is not a single happy story contained here. Everyone’s lives are ruined from the master all the way down to the smallest slave girl.  It is a circle of misery begetting misery begetting misery.

Homer was the mistress’ personal slave and many of the evil things that happen to her was because the mistress was so miserable that she make it her mission to make everybody round her miserable as well. (page 415)

Nobody is happy.  Everyone lives in misery and fear.  The whites are afraid of a black revolt.  The blacks are afraid of being whipped or hung.  Everyone is afraid of Obeah (an evil witchcraft similar to voodoo).  People start to lash out at each other in an attempt to better themselves.  For instance, the Johnny-jumpers are male slaves who are pseudo-overseers given power over the other slaves to beat them.  It is simply a system exploiting everyone and for what?  From the book it appears to be to maintain Britain’s position of power in the world.  The system is evil, and it does not simply beget misery, but despair as well.  It brings out the worst in everyone.

A strong theme in this book is that of race being a construct rather than an innate true difference in people.  Since Lilith is bi-racial, she has trouble simply aligning herself with one side or the other.  Although at first she hates white people, she comes to deeply care for a white man.  She comes to see people as individuals and not their race, but alas that thought process is far too advanced for the time she is living in, and she senses this.

She not black, she mulatto. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto. Maybe she be family to both and to hurt white man just as bad as hurting black man…..Maybe if she start to think that she not black or white, then she won’t have to care about neither man’s affairs. Maybe if she don’t care what other people think she be and start think about what she think she be, maybe she can rise over backra and nigger business, since neither ever mean her any good. Since the blood that run through her both black and white, maybe she be her own thing. But what thing she be? (page 277-8)

It’s impossible not to have your heart break for Lilith, a woman whose whole life revolves around race when all she ever wants is to feel happy and safe, an impossible dream represented for her by a picture from a child’s book that her foster slave father let her take from him.  The picture is of a sleeping princess with a prince near her, and Lilith’s obsession with this image follows her throughout her life, until she finally tells herself:

She not no fool, Lilith tell herself. She not a sleeping princess and Robert Quinn is not no king or prince. He just a man with broad shoulders and black hair who call her lovey and she like that more than her own name. She don’t want the man to deliver her, she just want to climb in the bed and feel he wrap himself around her. (page 335)

I found myself wishing I could scoop Lilith and Robert up and place them on an island where they could just be together and raise their mixed race babies and just be happy, but that’s not what happened then, and that’s the dream we must keep fighting for, isn’t it?  A world where people can just love each other and be happy and not be forced into misery for economic gain of a person or a business or a nation.

I know it sounds like wishful thinking, but that’s really what I got out of this book.  If we don’t want to live in a world that dark, we must embrace love in all its forms.  Love begets love, but hate begets hate.  Don’t like corporate greed or nationalism overtake your capacity to see the humanity in everyone–the capability for powerful good or powerful evil present in us all.  Perhaps this is a bit off-topic for The Real Help Reading Project, but that is the old passion from a youthful me in undergraduate classes that this book reignited, and that is what makes me want everyone to read it.

Source: Public Library

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Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!

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