Some weeks ago, I stopped in at my local bookstore and asked the fellow behind the counter for novels from Caribbean writers.
No sooner had that request left my mouth, books were being brought and laid out on the counter before me–left, right and centre. Some were from the shelves and others seemed to come out of nowhere.
Before dipping into my modest money supply to purchase any book (because like many other writers, at home and abroad, I’m living out the cliche of the starving artist), I look at three things: the artwork on the cover, the blurb and then the price.
So most of what was brought before me was dismissed after one look at the cover. I didn’t fancy the quality of the artwork, and I didn’t bother to read the blurb or look at the price (I’m that picky indeed).
Then the fellow brought out The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.
I literally took a deep breath when I saw the book, not because I was in any way wowed by Marlon James or by the cover, but because, instinctively, I knew the book was going to be “heavy” reading. I even said something to that effect to the fellow. I said, I don’t know if I can handle this.
As a little girl, I had watched many American-made movies set in the time of slavery. And at some point–not sure when–I couldn’t stomach them anymore. I was emotionally spent.
It took me almost three decades thereafter to watch another slave movie. And that was 12 Years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen. I had ignored it for months before deciding to watch it. But it was well worth the two-plus hours.
I examined Marlon’s book a little, front and back, looked at the price tag and almost drop a ground. I placed it back on the counter and skimmed through the other offerings. But I found myself being drawn back to Marlon’s book, again and again.
So I took the plunge. I justified the spend by telling myself I was supporting a fellow Jamaican writer (yeah!). Plus I felt a connection to Marlon because I had met him many moons ago when he too was a starving artist. I would just make do with one less square meal a day for the next several days.
People, plain and straight, I don’t like stories set in the time of slavery. They stir up emotions in me that I would rather not have stirred. The emotions range from sadness to perhaps some anger and to utter disbelief at the level of wickedness in some men (and women).
The Book of Night Women, which I believe is Marlon’s 2nd novel, had me going through this whole gamut of emotions. Even so, once I started to read, I couldn’t put it down.
The narrator’s voice is different from any I’ve read before. It’s what one would imagine a young, Jamaican girl growing up in the time of slavery would sound like. Think patois. Think broken English. Think simple and unpretentious.
It’s set in the late 1700s to early 1800s, and the plot touches on pretty much everything–and I mean everything–that you would expect to be taking place in and around a Jamaican sugar plantation back then. From killings to beatings to rapes to rebellions and even obeah.
But in the midst of all that, I saw it as a coming of age story of the main character, Lilith, an adolescent, Jamaican, slave girl (she’s not the narrator, by the way). Marlon’s choice of words not only conveys the confusion this girl goes through in her daily life, but also leaves you empathizing with her.
How powerful was this book?
A little over a week after finishing it, my mind still races back to Lilith, and then I wonder what it must have felt like growing up in the time of slavery. But then, I thank God for delaying my birth to more than a century after.
Although it’s a powerful read, I wouldn’t recommend it for children. The author holds nothing back when using certain Jamaican expressions and in describing killings, rapes etc.
If you can buy this book and are prepared to face the range of emotions it will put you through then do buy. And since it will be your copy, feel free to cuss it, fling it down, laugh wid it, beat it up, cry on it, hide it from yourself then find it right back and continue reading.
Catch yuh next time!
Peace and love,