Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James

By Barbara Hoffert

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Barbara Hoffert discusses fiction finalist Marlon James's The Book of Night Women (Riverhead)

“Every Negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.”

This phrase comes up repeatedly in Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, a gaspingly harrowing and yet unquenchable read that will take you right down to one of the lower circles in hell. If you think you know what slavery in the 18th-century Americas was like, think again; then read this book and you’ll get actually to live it.

The heroine is Lillith, a slave with vivid green eyes born on a Jamaica sugar plantation to a 13-year-old who had been assaulted by the overseer and who perishes in childbirth. As a youngster, Lillith herself kills a black overseer, or Johnny-jump, who tries to rape her, fights her way upward in a household managed by a fierce slave woman named Homer, is assaulted and whipped repeatedly for the slightest infraction, but finally finds a strange sort of love and remains spirited throughout. For though she’s scarily powerful enough to be invited to join the Night Women, who are planning a revolt, she is never completely one of them but remains a complex character of her own. Throughout, the language is sensuous and biting, delivered in the island’s own cadences; it takes you over, lulls you, then moves in for the kill. With such immediacy, James’s work brings you into a horrifying world. It takes you, and makes of you what it will.

Click here for a video of Marlon James discussing The Book of Night Women.

The NBCC awards ceremony is free and open to the public, as are the readings by NBCC finalists on Wednesday, March 10. To purchase tickets to the reception following the awards ceremony, click here.