The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

D.G. Meyers has been discussing the idea that plot “serves the same function in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.” He uses Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence to support this thesis. I think he makes an excellent case and, at the very least, the idea is a useful one. In Age of Innocence, each twist of the plot pushes forward the central idea of the novel, which Meyers boils down to “the tragic view of marital duty.” Meyers summarizes:

What is striking is how ingeniously Wharton arranges for Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action” and moved by “a spirit of perversity,” to do the very things that later make it impossible for him to achieve the happiness he so desperately longs for. He himself plotted, behind the scenes, to remake Ellen Olenska’s life, and his plot comes back to haunt him.

I have not read Age of Innocence, so I cannot engage in a meaningful discussion of Meyer’s thesis as applied to that novel. He makes a strong case, though. I find the idea a useful one.

The Book of Night Women fits nicely into the paradigm D.G. Meyers has constructed. The novel is filled with plotting, both by the author and by the characters. The novel is set in the Jamaica of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Marlon James, to some extent, sets out to explore in Jamaica some of the themes Toni Morrison has explored in the American South. The “night women” of the title are slaves enduring the cruelties of slavery as practiced in Jamaica. Jamaica is, of course, an island and, therefore, there is no Underground Railroad to a free North. The men and women enslaved on the Montpelier Estate do look elsewhere for inspiration and hope, specifically to Saint-Domingue (which, in 1804, would become the Republic of Haiti).

The novel is told entirely in a Jamaican dialect and begins with the 1785 birth of Lilith to a fourteen year-old mother who bleeds to death in the process. The opening scene and the tone in which it is related are sobering:

Two black legs spread wide and a mother mouth screaming. A weak womb done kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.

The overseer places Lilith with childless woman who raises as Lilith as her own. Lilith grows up spirited and defiant. She competes with the boys in athletics, but is slapped and admonished when she bests them. Lilith is not bowed, however, but cusses and complains about the injustice. This defiance and sense fairness are defining features of her character. Lilith’s character drives much of the plot.

She has the good fortune (relatively speaking) to work in the house rather than in the field. There, she meets Homer. Homer is a wise old woman who has earned the respect of her masters and fellow slaves alike. She takes Lilith under her wing, begins training her to work in the kitchen, teaches her to read, and, eventually, invites Lilith into a secret society of women.

Homer is a practitioner of Myal (not to be confused, as even Lilith does, with Obeah) a form of traditional African magic or sorcery. She is feared by the other slaves and may be responsible for the death of Lilith’s foster mother. She seems to have no real rival for power among the other slaves and has brought together a group of six women. Lilith, asked to join when she is still very much a girl, is the seventh.

The purpose or function of the group of night women remains a mystery to Lilith and the reader for much of the book. The group may be a priesthood of Myal and Obeah practitioners, a group planning an escape or revolt, a governing body among the slaves, or something else entirely. Their existence and some members’ resistance to Lilith joining the group provides some of the mystery and suspense of the novel.

During the daylight hours, the plot is pushed by the familiar intrigues, travails, and small joys of slave life. Lilith is a very beautiful young woman with striking green eyes, so Homer spends a fair amount of time trying to shield Lilith from the undesirable attentions of the white masters and the black “johnny-jumpers” (slave drivers). For her part, Lilith develops a crush on an Irishman who, it seems, pays her little mind despite her various attempts to catch his eye.

All of the later plot developments are foreshadowed effectively, but not convincingly. This lack of persuasiveness was a problem for me throughout the novel. At times, the book almost brought me on board, but each time I felt as if something was not quite right. Imagining the life and psychology of a person trapped in 18th/19th century slavery is not easy for anyone. The failure may be as much mine as the author’s, but I was not entirely convinced. Too often, I felt like I was reading stage directions to get the characters where they needed to go. For all its originality, and there is originality here, the book never completely drew me in.

There is another, perhaps deeper, problem too. The central thesis, without revealing too much, seems to be the way the institution of slavery corrupts everyone it touches. There is no way to live an entirely honorable life within the strictures of the abominable practice, whether as servant or master. However, I do not think the plotting is as tautly conceived as it could have been to make that point (or, if that isn’t the point, then any other point). I do not think all the events work together to prove James’ apparent thesis. He does not spare his characters, but, even so, there is a hesitation to follow events and psychology to their natural conclusion.

The Book of Night Women is an entertaining read, though not the easiest due to its dialect. It has depth, but it is not a complete success. If you are interested in the types of issues and situations common to books on slavery, I would certainly recommend this book, but with reservations. Toni Morrison has so brilliantly harvested so much of this field, the yield of authors like James can only suffer by comparison. There are things left to say and James makes a very good effort at saying them, but I do not think this will be a long-lasting contribution to slave literature. At bottom, the plot deviates too much from the point for the novel to be an artistically convincing argument.

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8 Responses to The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

  1. I don’t know about this book, but you must read Age of innocence! Meyers argument is an interesting one … Not having done much philosophy I hadn’t really thought about it but it’s an idea worth testing out isn’t it?

  2. Amy says:

    Just curious, not argumentative–how do we know the dialect is authentic? Being a lifelong northerner, I had no idea The Help was such a dialectic mess, and I wonder how we judge this book in terms of accuracy, since it’s set so far back?

    I loved the first half of this book, but it fell apart in the second half altogether. I think Moore’s book was plenty flawed too–I think her strength is the short story, not the novel. But I might have given her a tiny edge over this one, simply because of the way the whole book collapsed for me. The plot with the Irishman felt so contrived.

  3. Kerry says:

    Whispering Gums: Age of Innocence is on the TBR. I absolutely love Wharton’s novella (short story?) Ethan Frome, but the subject of some of her other work (early 20th century high society) has been a bit off-putting to me. It is time to dive in, however. Thank you for the push.

    Amy: Your question is a legitimate one. I do not know that the dialect rendered by James is either historically or geographically accurate. I am largely ignorant on both counts.

    I am much more familiar with the time and place addressed by The Help. Granted, I grew up in North Carolina in the 1970s and 1980s, but I spent a great deal of time with black men (less so women) who would have been about the same age as Stockett’s main black characters, I heard lots of older black women speak while I was in town, I also heard lots of southern white men and women speak. Beyond my own experience, I have read commentary from a number of others who do have more direct experience with Mississippi dialect and they confirm my own suspicions. Granted, there have been others who defend her choices, but the southern black dialect in The Help does not sound authentic. As I mentioned in my own review, I believe, it sounds tentative.

    But that is not the biggest problem for me. What I really found offensive was the perfect English of the white characters. To render the grammatical and phonetic idiosyncracies of black characters but edit into perfection the speech of white characters is a dubious choice at best. It is one thing to get dialect wrong, it is another to saddle one class (because Stockett, with her dialectical choices, has created the two classes here) of characters with “ignorant” speech when the reality is both “classes” of characters have very distinctive speech patterns that would be recognized on, say, the streets of small town Minnesota. Both would immediately be recognized as out-of-towners, so addressing only one of those seems negligent at best.

    James seems to have made a more concerted effort to get dialect right. Again, more importantly, he did not limit his improper English to his black characters. The black charactes and white characters did not sound alike, but neither was one group blessed with perfect English. The result still did not sound flawless to me. For instance, James’ Irish sounded a bit stilted and contrived, though, again, I am no expert. There was actual variation from standard English and grammatical errors committed by all.

    Stockett’s poor rendering of dialect for her black characters and her decision not to give her white characters any dialect only reinforces the overall feeling from her book that she doesn’t really get it, that she remains a somewhat clueless Skeeter who is trying to do good but, on a deep level, does not understand her subjects.

    This is getting long enough to be a rant, so I will end shortly. Being able to determine whether a given dialect or historical detail is accurate is not necessary to appreciating, criticizing, or commenting on a book. However, a known error or failing should be pointed out, particular when it puts in doubt the psychological or historical authenticity of the story itself. Is it fair that Stockett wrote about a time and place that is well known by many of her readers and, therefore, she is subject to criticism for failings of dialect while Marlon James wrote about a place and time unfamiliar to most and, therefore, is largely immune from criticism for failings of dialect? I suppose not. But Stockett still blew it. Plus, her book was not nearly as good as James’s.

    By the way, I agree that there were some failings of plot in The Book of Night Women and agree with you, or another commenter, that the primary love affair in the novel felt somewhat contrived or scripted which contributed to the plot failings in the second half.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment and question. I would love to hear your or others’ thoughts, as I just gave my off-the-cuff reaction. I am sure there is more and better to be said.

    • Hi Kerry, re Edith Wharton and her subject. It might make you think differently if you see her subject not as early 20th century high society but as the impact of Societal strictures on individuals, the role these plays in individual’s freedom to live the life they would like – and particularly on the impact on women. Read The house of mirth!

      Ethan Frome was my introduction to her too … great book. She’s a great writer.

      (BTW Does this mean you don’t like Austen either? I’ve heard people say they are not interested in reading her for similar reasons – though, in fact, many of her heroines are “middle class” and some are not totally secure. A mean theme of hers too is the impact of society’s expectations and rules on women’s ability to live their lives…

      • Kerry says:

        I like Austen well enough, but I do not see much more of her in my future. I say much more, because I will read another. I definitely will read more Wharton, starting with Age of Innocence and I will definitely look at it in the context you have presented rather than as a “high society” novel.

        Thank you very much for the recommendations, encouragement, and discussion.

  4. Amy says:

    It is an interesting debate, and I see your points. On a larger platform, though, the dialect question (an old one) gets raised: why write in such a difficult manner? Sure, it creates an “authentic” experience. But I know many people who are definitely not afraid of a hard read who’ve passed on the James book just because of the dialect. Their point is it becomes distracting.

    Another review I saw somewhere else, when I was about 1/3 of the way through the book, called it out for too much violence and profanity. I rolled my eyes and thought, geez, it’s about slavery on a Jamaican plantation a couple of centuries ago–what’d you expect, tea parties and sunshine? I’m not one bothered by violence and profanity, in context and used to illustrate the story. But I have to admit, by the time I got to the end, I felt it had gotten to the point of being gratuitous rather than necessary, and that was part of my problem with the second half of the book. That, and the “romance.”

  5. Kerry says:

    I definitely see your point about using dialect at all. The sacrifice of readability for authenticity is a legitimate question, the answer to which depends on precisely what the author is trying to accomplish, I think. In The Book of Night Women, it could be distracting, but I think it was a legitimate choice. I will be opting for non-dialect books for awhile though…

    I think the violence was overdone, a bit. The third or fourth “with him cocky in he mouth” (or something like that, I don’t have it in front of me) was maybe a bridge too far. I think “gratuitous” is a fair adjective to apply.

    The “romance” indeed.

  6. […] HW: “[T]he plot deviates too much from the point for the novel to be an artistically convincing argument.“ […]

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