By Donna Bailey Nurse
A large part of the tension of the African-American slave narrative derives from the slave's physical proximity to freedom: to the larger world all around them inhabited by whites, and to the psychological proximity to freedom at the end of some imaginary railroad.
But the plantation setting of Marlon James's superb second novel, which opens in Jamaica in the late 18th century, constitutes a vast, enclosed, cruel universe. The only possibility for liberty for the slaves of the Montpelier Estate lies in escape to a wildness ruled by over the militant, free Maroons - who have promised to capture and return runaways in any case.
James's use of a hard-edged Jamaican language immerses the reader in the slave's brutish existence. In this scene, Lilith, the novel's young black heroine, describes the routine of Montpelier field slaves, a status she'll do anything to avoid:
"Before sunrise she hear them - one, two, three hundred foot hitting the ground and tumbling like slow thunder. ... The slave coffle. The field niggers. Before sunrise they in the field and by moonrise they still working. And when crop time, no nigger leave. Sun burn they black bodies blacker. Ants, mosquito, rat, snake and scorpion bite them in the bush. Womens screaming. No, massa, no whip me no more, and mens scraming as backra [whites]chop they two little toe off. She see the slaves when they come back in the evening, tired, crying, limping and bleeding and some that come back in a sack."
Montpelier's overseer, Jack Wilkins, sexually assaults the black women with shocking regularity. On the job, he is assisted by a team of black slave drivers who are in turn assisted by a group of violent black men called "Johnny jumpers" for their habit of "jumping" slave women.
Lilith is born into this nightmarish milieu in 1785, "a black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight, but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see." When her mother dies in childbirth, Wilkins gives Lilith to the cold-hearted Circe, the plantation prostitute, to rear. The only one who shows Lilith any affection is her surrogate father, Tantalus, also known as "the mad nigger." Lilith grows into a feisty adolescent - not to mention "facety," as Jamaicans would say: She has quite a mouth on her and is famous for the kind of comments that might invite injury in even a modern, free society.
One day, a Johnny jumper attempts to rape Lilith. Alone and terrified, she throws a pot of boiling tea in his face. After a struggle, she winds up chopping off his head with his cutlass. Her life is saved when a woman named Homer, the head house slave, a quiet, indomitable leader, hides her in the cellar of the Big House. But Homer also has ulterior motives. She recognizes Lilith's powerful spirituality.
It is Homer who introduces Lilith to the half dozen women who meet clandestinely at night. The women turn out to be Lilith's half sisters - their mothers had been raped by Wilkins. They have long been planning their revenge: a violent revolt that would avenge the brutality the black women have suffered on the plantation. Unwise, immature and ungrateful, Lilith rejects their overtures at sisterhood. She has become a favourite of the mistress and has fallen in love with her mistress's strapping son. She aspires to a life altogether superior to that of the other black women. For Lilith, the events of the novel constitute a most brutal learning curve.
James does not flinch at detailing the grotesque acts of violence that characterize life at Montpelier. Tantalus is castrated after he is caught peeping at the mistress. Then Wilkins has half the old slave's foot cut off after he attempts to run away. A slave woman is punished by having her pubic hair set on fire. During crop time, a worker's head is chopped off and hung on a pole to intimidate the blacks into moving faster. Slaves also exact vengeance against one another, employing Obeah that causes blood and pus to erupt out of their enemy's orifices.
At the same time as James draws on historical fact, he also shapes these horrific events into an Elizabethan-style revenge tragedy, with its dramatizations of torture, mutilations and bloody acts of vengeance, and also its examination of the moral and spiritual concerns of the day. James incorporates into the novel passages from Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews for a similar reason: Fielding, a moral reformer, used his novel to address the abuse of power by individuals and institutions, and also the dangers of sexual immorality.
The Book of Night Women strikes me as very nearly perfect work; an exquisite blend of form and content. But if I had to choose one element most responsible for the novel's success, I would have to say language. Not only James's expert application of an honest and expressive patois, but his clever decision to narrate the story in the Jamaican language. In so doing, he bestows on the slave account authenticity and authority. James settles on the "n" word - nigger - as the chief means of describing the slaves: It is how the whites in the novel refer to the blacks, and how the blacks refer to themselves. With this indisputably political act, James affirms the link between speech and history.
Most magnificently, Montpellier's slaves have names such as Lilith, Circe, Paris, Hippolyta and, especially, Homer, which evoke the West's most ancient and enduring myths. This is James's bid, perhaps, for blacks to recognize our slave ancestors, especially the women, as proud archetypes, and our slave narratives as literary epics. With The Book of Night Women , he makes a very convincing argument.
Marlon James won The Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. A previous version of this article appeared in The Globe and Mail.