In this story of slavery, souls refuse to be shackled

By Renée Graham
Globe Correspondent / May 12, 2009
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With skin the color of coal and eyes like polished emeralds, Lilith makes even the steeliest hearts shiver with trepidation. In 1785, she is the only baby born at Montpelier Estate, a Jamaica plantation where blood and brutality are as commonplace as sugar cane. She is born of violence -- her 13-year-old mother, who died giving birth, was raped by a white overseer. Anger pulsating in her veins, Lilith grows into a young woman of rage and, her fellow women slaves soon recognize, rebellion.

Marlon James's "The Book of Night Women" is a devastating epic of savage history, relentless oppression, and souls that refuse to be shackled. The titular women, many of whom have clear, cold green eyes like Lilith, meet at nightfall to plot a bloody uprising against their white captors as well as those on nearby plantations. Written in a clipped West Indian cadence, James's novel details the bitterness of slavery with all of its atrocious indignities and petty cruelties.

At times, it can be exhausting - in one passage, Lilith is strung up and whipped until she passes out. Yet it's also vital to the story's harsh veracity that James allows its horrors to remain stark and unvarnished. Nor does he soft-pedal the ugly racism that helped fuel slavery. Here, the enmity between blacks and whites flows unchecked, its poison seeping from one generation to the next. As whites view their slaves as chattel, blacks perceive their "owners" as an insidious plague unleashed upon the land.

Yet other animosities also foment. Blacks fight among themselves -- just because they're slaves, it doesn't mean they haven't forged their own prejudicial hierarchies. Meanwhile, the colonial settlers, both English and Irish, despise one another.

From the moment of her difficult birth, it's clear that Lilith is not one to be trifled with. Her name evokes the mythic female demon, often associated in folklore with destruction and death. Lilith kills a would-be rapist when she is 14, and it's not the last time her hands will spill the blood of others.

Over the years, Homer, the feared and revered head slave sees in Lilith the ferocity necessary to overwhelm their masters, yet Homer also understands it will take more than brute force to win independence. Each night, the women meet to commit an act punishable by death -- learning to read.

"Learn this, when you can make out word, nothing the massa can do will surprise you." Picking up a book, Homer tells Lilith, "Every time you open this, you get free. Freeness up in here and nobody even have to know you get free but you." And when Lilith frets that learning to read could mean certain death, Homer counters, "If the massa supper spoil, you dead, what be the difference?"

Words in a book give Lilith hints of a life beyond the plantation, as does an unlikely love affair with a white man. This sort of thing can quickly descend into trashy "Mandingo" territory, but James is such a sure, humane writer, he never exploits his characters for tawdry thrills.

"The Book of Night Women" is a searing read, full of blood, tears, and the stench of misery. It's barbaric and ancient, but also familiar in the ways that people, consumed by their differences and divisions, easily overlook all that binds them -- the desire for independence, the right to a civilized life, and the need to give and receive love.

Renee Graham is a freelance writer.


Riverhead, 417 pp., $26.95