The violence, the graphic, coarse language, the whippings, rapes, and other brutalities, the rages, the bravery and resistance, and the love--all of it nonstop--make Marlon James's The Book of Night Women hard to put down.
Critic Maud Newton says she read it in one sitting--all 417 pages of it. Good for her. If you like a quick-paced read with all the above ingredients, and if you have a few hours to spare, you could probably read it in one sitting too. Not me though. I had to take breaks from the details from time to time.
Once I was done reading it, I was convinced The Book of Night Women is more than worthy of a place of honor in the tradition of stories that bring us great signifyin' black women. James gives us black signifyin' women in an enslaved Caribbean setting, and though his women--Lilith and Homer, in particular--are new additions to the canon, they are very much like many of their predecessors. Their stories of bravery, ingenuity, tragedy, vulnerability . . . all their complexities have been preceded by stories of women real and make believe: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Seacole, Nanny, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison's women, Gloria Naylor's women, and many others.
The women all share roots in Africa where some of their female ancestors first ruled and led many, and where they learned (and passed on to other generations of women) their power was in the brain, the hands, and between the legs. Just like their kinfolk who were taken to other parts of the Americas, James's Jamaican signifyin' women fight and love in a language which mocks and mimics that of the one they call master. Their use of that language is another addition to their arsenal of power which survived the passage to the Americas--power that includes bush knowledge, healing techniques, organizational skills, and storytelling.
Lilith and Homer are two women of different generations in slavery. They are house slaves whose lives are driven by indomitable pride, and the desire for something redeeming. Homer seems driven by the desire to exact revenge for the way she and her children have been treated. Lilith seems to be driven by the desire for a better life than the one she has. Much of what propels the novel is the feeling that both women will see their desires actualized. And so, though one may be horrified by the details of their lives, and though one is constantly hit by the daunting phrase "every negro walk in a circle," the will of both women to live and hope is a strong pull throughout the novel.
If you'd like to read their compelling stories for yourself, be the first to let me know and I'll send you a copy of the book.
Caution: If you know you're squeamish about blood, violence, and cuss words, then this may not be the book for you. I just bought a copy for my aunt and she'll be my test audience in that group. I'll let you know if she survives it, but consider yourself warned.