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The Book of Night Women

The Book of Night Women

by Marlon James
The Book of Night Women

The Book of Night Women

by Marlon James



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From the author of the National Book Award finalist Black Leopard, Red Wolf and the WINNER of the 2015 Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings

"An undeniable success.” — The New York Times Book Review

A true triumph of voice and storytelling, The Book of Night Women rings with both profound authenticity and a distinctly contemporary energy. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they- and she-will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings, desires, and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman, and risks becoming the conspiracy's weak link. But the real revelation of the book-the secret to the stirring imagery and insistent prose-is Marlon James himself, a young writer at once breath­takingly daring and wholly in command of his craft.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101011317
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/19/2009
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 41,303
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His most recent novel is A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. He is also the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. James lives in Minneapolis.

Read an Excerpt

(Disclaimer: This excerpt contains content that may not be appropriate for all readers.)

People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red. Not when the midwife know that the mother shed too much blood, and she who don’t reach fourteen birthday yet speak curse ’pon the chile and the papa, and then she drop down dead like old horse. Not when blood spurt from the skin, or spring from the axe, the cat- o’-nine, the whip, the cane and the blackjack and every day in slave life is a day that colour red. It soon come to pass when red no different from white or blue or black or nothing. 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.

Two thing you should know if you want to know her. As soon as Lilith born the womens regard her with fear and trembling because of them green eyes that light up the room, but not like sunlight. Nobody did want the young’un and the overseer Jack Wilkins had to make special arrangement for a niggerwoman to take care of the child, for the mens and womens did content to just leave her in the bush and make the land take her back. Another thing. Girl like Lilith don’t born with green eye because God feel to be extra kind to nigger girl. This much was for sure, Lilith be the only girl to grow up in a hut calling a woman mother and a man father but she didn’t look like neither.

That woman. That girl. People recall when she was still a little pickney on the Montpelier Estate, them few years when a nigger not black, playing rounders with boys. She swing the club, clap the ball clear ’cross the field and make one run to all four base and beat the boys but couldn’t understand when the wet nurse slap her and say that a good girl was supposed to make manchild win. Lilith cuss and ask if manchild can’t win if girl don’t lose and she get another slap. Some take as sign when at seven Lilith tell them same boys that is ’cause they have worm between them legs why they can’t run fast like she and the girl get a swift kick from a passing niggerwoman who tell her that there be a grave already dug for the uppity. Lilith cuss under her tongue and say, Is you must go to grave since you already stink like dead puppy. Then there was the time when she get a well- deserved thumping for telling a white playmate from Coulibre Estate that she be a damn fool for saying that sky wet when everybody know it dry ’cept for when rain fall. White pickney and black pickney play all the time when they little, as if they be combolo, one and the same. But Lilith too spirited. Too spirited for a nigger girl black like pitch with legs too smooth for a slave and hair too woolly and lips too thick like fruit and eyes that seem robbed from white lady. A slave woman fate write before she born, but Lilith didn’t grow up regarding them things for she live with Circe, the only nigger at Montpelier Estate who didn’t work.

People say that Montpelier Estate was so huge that you could tell you’re there as soon as the wind start blowing to the east. In 1785, the year of many death but one birth, the overseer judge Circe too weak to do field labour. He give her a new hut that make from wood, not mud like what common nigger live in. He give her a man to live with in the Bible way. He also give her Lilith, which was just as well since plenty people knew that there was nothing Tantalus could do for a woman, much less breed niggerkin. Circe sleep in a bed while Tantalus and Lilith make do with the floor. Tantalus go near that bed only once and he have a scar below him left eye to show for it.

The hut door was to the north, the kitchen to the south, the red armchair that come from the overseer Jack Wilkins’ house to the east and the bed to the west. Circe shoulder thick and broad like man, her legs bow a little and her breasts strong and wide. But she short. All over her head, grey hair pop up like little flowers. A straw hat with a pink ribbon be on her head that she never take off, and when she go to sleep the hat cover her face. Circe didn’t take too kindly to mothering. Some say that this was on account of who Lilith papa be, but word loose like wind on Montpelier Estate.

By the time Lilith commence her fourteenth year, Circe grow tired of Tantalus the mad nigger. She come from church one Sunday afternoon and sit down in the armchair only to feel wetness soak through her dress. Piss, to be sure, for Tantalus didn’t got no cum. Circe go for her cast- iron pot and beat him out of the house. Since that time, nobody put clothes on that nigger and the overseer tie him to a breadfruit tree like an old dog. Lilith, after washing Circe good blue frock down by the river near the ratoon fields, come home to see Tantalus tie up under the tree and bawling and grunting and hissing and whinnying and grabbing him cocky in a indecent way and it make her feel like she was the most meanest thing in the world to have such a pappy.

Niggers already done make a song ’bout Tantalus the mad nigger. Lilith scared that soon the song was goin’ pick up a new verse ’bout her. Already she too tall and too loud and the other pickneys says she too big to play even though Lilith still feel like little girl. Lilith look around the dusty patch and it small now. You titty big like yam, a niggerboy tell her when they playing. And you balls little like cherry, she say to him. The little boy punch her and she jump ’pon him like wild dog and nobody could pull her off until they beat her hand to let go of him balls.

Commencing also be this— the white pickneys reach the age when they become white and nigger become black and they don’t play to - gether no more. Lilith know one in particular, the girl from Coulibre who use to grab her hair and call her black sheep and always want to go on quest past the ratoon fields, which was forbidden. The same girl Lilith call donkey cause she laugh like a hee- haw. Plenty time Lilith say, Let we be the wickedest pirates! And the girl would say, Aye! and she lead the white girl astray to plunder the booty, cherry or plum or banana. They would tie cloth over one eye and be Henry Morgan and Blackbeard. And they talk secret- like so the boys wouldn’t know. The white girl call her lank chicken and Lilith call her rank goat and they scream and laugh, and the girl take Lilith hand and neither think it uncanny. Then one day the girl come to the plantation dress up in bonnet like her mama and bawl out, Mama, pray tell why is that nigger addressing me? Lilith get a slap for that from a thin house niggerwoman who smell of mint and lemongrass. Lilith don’t go near the great house after that and the white girl stop coming to Montpelier altogether.

Lilith think she is still girl but even Circe tell her otherwise. This was an evening not long after she throw Tantalus out of the hut.

— Look ’pon you, Circe say as she lean back in her red armchair and fan ’way mosquito. — Worthless and good for nothing. Sake o’ you, man start hitch up round here like pee- pee cluck- cluck. Outside cricket was chirping like they agree and inside the hotness wouldn’t leave the room.

— Word be that is you they come to, Mama.

— Wha’ you just say in me earshole? Word from who? Lilith don’t answer.

— You soon start takin’ man, Circe say.

— Me not takin’ nothing but the word of God, Mama.

Two thing happen in Lilith fourteenth year. One day she was out in the yard romping when all of a sudden she feel wet, wet, wet. Blood slip from her like whisper and run down her leg. She scream and two boy laugh. Lilith run to the hut where Circe was dismissing a coloured gentleman who wasn’t from Montpelier Estate. As soon as she see Circe her mouth shut up and she couldn’t do nothing but mumble.

— Speak up! Damn girl, Circe say.

Lilith start cry. She couldn’t say her cho- cho be bleeding. Circe would think she done some nastiness for sure. Some nastiness with boy that Circe always saying that she born to do. Circe grab the girl.

— After nothing no do you. Why you trying me patience, pickney? Circe go to push her off but then see new blood running down Lilith leg.— Shithouse. You turn woman now, she say.

From then Lilith couldn’t go nowhere, nor talk to nobody, most of all boy.

— And don’t make me see you near any of them Johnny- jumper or I goin’ kill you for sure, Circe say.

Lilith look in the old silver tray that the great house throw away. Lilith look down the well and the dead part of the river. Lilith watching Lilith and trying to see which part of her turn woman. She watch her lips and bite down so that they look smaller. She look at her eyes and try to see them with nigger colour. She see her legs that too long, and hear her voice that cracky- cracky like old witch. Lilith did think that turning woman was going to make her smile but instead things was pushing out of her skin without permission. Things growing and won’t stop and pussy blood come and go when it feel like. Some woman did get possess by the Bosi, the spirit that take over people shape and have her do things that the Bible don’t like. The Bosi plump up a woman titty and arse and burn down her voice and tear her in two. Lilith grab herself. Lilith seeing how pickney is the only thing that not be a slave and start to wrap osnaburg cloth tight round her titty so they won’t grow. But her body turn enemy ’pon her. By evening the toughest cloth would ease into the shape of her breast like two clay pot. Not long after that one of the house womens say she should be breeding, just like her mama.

Lilith perplex, for she don’t know what breeding have to do with she. Lilith want to run and skip and jump and whinny like horse. She still want to do them things until she pass by the only nigger who was skipping and jumping and whinnying too. Tantalus the mad nigger. Lilith think that maybe the first thing a woman must learn to do is to stop smile.

One more thing happen in Lilith fourteenth year.

Circe tell the chile to stop call her mama. Lilith did flabbergast but then all of a sudden what Circe say make sense and that flabbergast her more. For Lilith remember the whispers from the womens who wash by the river. They talk ’bout how certain nigger lucky that she don’t work and how she never take to mothering but love the rutting, and about how certain woman barren and certain man nature cut. Lilith come to know the silence that happen when them same big people see that she was listening. Is not like Circe was one to hide anything though. Plenty time Lilith arriving when a man of colour leaving and one time she come home to see a mulatto from Kingston climb off Circe as her bow legs flap up in the air and she yell, Get out of the house you little bitch so big people can be private.

— What they mean when they say Tantalus nature cut? Lilith ask the same evening, as if sunset was going give her the answer.

— Who say that?

— Three womens. They was washing by the river.

— Three bitches they be. But that mad nigger business is everybody business.

— What be him business?

— Next time you pass that naked bastard take a good look for youself.

You not too fool, so you must know what man supposed to have.

Jack Wilkins slice it off himself long years ago. That mad son of a bitch used to play with himself and watch the old mistress when she take bath. Wilkins catch the nigger himself.

— No, Mama—

— Me warn you not to call me—

— No, Circe. Me don’t know them things.

— Eehi. Circe resume to eating sweet potato and goat milk.

— So you not goin’ ask?

— Ask?

— You not goin’ inquire after her? Who you mama be?

— No.

— Humph. She was a stupid gal just like you.

— She dead?

— Of course she dead, girl like that born fi dead. You take after her, that is for sure. Couldn’t beat it out of you.

— And Tantalus not me papa?

— You better ask Tantalus. Couldn’t beat no decency into you, that for sure.

— Me goin’ be decent just like you, Mama.

— Circe.

— Me goin’ be like you. Me goin’ have plenty man come a- callin’ for tuppence.

Circe jump at her quick but Lilith dash through the door.— You better find someplace for you skinny backside, you hear me! Circe shout and slam the door. Lilith frighten and her heart beating but she also feel good. Wonderful good. One time Lilith try to clean the old armchair and Circe scream to not touch nothing and Lilith get frighten and run. Another time Lilith pick grape for Circe, and she eat a bunch, then throw ’way the rest and say, They spoil, you little wretch. Circe cook for herself and most time forget to cook for Lilith. She wait till the woman fall asleep to thief the last potato sticking in the pot. Lilith hear that white people get governess to hold they pickney and tell them story, but only Tantalus ever do that and he did mad one time, then get back sense and gone mad again. Lilith stomp her foot and sniff hard for her tears to behave.

— Time you go find man and come out of me house, Circe say.

Montpelier, like other estate on the east coast, have one white man for every thirty- three negro. White man couldn’t abide by they numbers alone, so they pick out a bunch of niggermens to put them in charge of other slaves. Johnny- jumpers they call them, five to ten in number and they work with whip and on some estate, knife and gun. When a field nigger not keeping up the quota of ground to plough or cane to cut they whip him in the back or punch him in the face or kick him in the balls and tell him work harder ’cause he not no prince regent here. The Johnny- jumpers raid the slave settlement at night like they be pirate, taking the supper that just cook, or if they hungering for a something else, grabbing the daughter or the mother even if her titty lanky and her pussy no good. They do as they please at night for Jack Wilkins the overseer didn’t care.

Is on a raid that a Johnny- jumper first set eye on Lilith. They shouting and gallivanting but stay wide of Circe hut as they run pass. People know to keep ’way from Circe ever since she tell a niggerman who thief her potato that the potato goin’ know what to do and the very next day a big chunk stick in him throat and choke him to death. But from far off the Johnny- jumpers see Circe house and her open fire and her little girl who was only getting bigger. This was the week before the field niggers was to start reaping the provision grounds while the sugarcane still grow.

— Soon and very soon you goin’ be taking man, Circe say as she look out the window as they pass, one of them sticking out he tongue at the hut.

— Taking man where? Lilith say, hearing they footsteps getting weaker and weaker.

— You go on playin’ fool to catch wise, Circe say.

But Lilith plenty scared of the Johnny- jumpers. Even as a little pickney she hear of what they do in the field and more than once when she was little they sack the playground and kick the little boys. Some nights, Lilith hear the screaming and crashing and cussing goin’ on in the slave settlement and wonder if one day they was goin’ get bold and come into Circe hut to slap her and squeeze her breast. One day, when she coming from washing by the river, a Johnny- jumper that she see before, who not even taller than her, shout from across the path that Europa pussy too loose after the young’un so he coming for her. Fear seize Lilith and she run back to the hut, where Circe was getting visit from the overseer Jack Wilkins himself.

Lilith stop. The man regard her but she couldn’t see him face since he didn’t take off him hat. He swallow some more lime and sugarwater and give Circe the glass. Him shirt open and him chest hair white and bushy. Him breeches cream and dirty and loose and he swing a little when he walk right past her, that old man swing. Lilith jump out of the way but the tobacco air reach her. That night Circe laughing when she recalling what he say.

— What a thing! Seem you free paper burn. And to think of all people, he be the one that burn it. You to report to the field tomorrow morning. Don’t make cock crow and you still in you bed.

Fear jump up and snatch the words out of Lilith mouth the whole night. Everybody know ’bout the life of a field nigger. Before sunrise she hear them— one, two, three hundred foot hitting the ground and rumbling like slow thunder. They used to wake her and scare her so much that she thought they was a militia marching to hell. 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 screaming as backra 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.

And she hear other things too. Of the time in 1785 when they burn a nigger girl alive right in the middle of the cane field and how every year, right before crop time, she scream. And when the overseer chop off another nigger head and stick it on a pole until it rot off. And when they send five slave to the treadmill where them niggers run themself to death. The word was that Jack Wilkins wield the whip and do as he please. He instruct him slave- drivers to do the same and since then a month don’t pass where they don’t kill a nigger and gone to Spanish Town to buy a fresh one. Montpelier have deep pockets and a new nigger always better than a lazy one, Jack Wilkins was known to say.

The field was where Jack Wilkins was sending her.

Lilith ’fraid of sleep ’cause tomorrow was goin’ come right after. She think that if she try her hardest to stay awake, then night would be force to stay and tomorrow would never come again. Lilith don’t care if that was little girl thinking and she supposed to be woman now. She hold on to the awakeness for a long time before sleep beat her. The next morning she sick.

Circe frown, tapping her foot.

The girl lying flat on the mat.

— Me say what sick you?

— Me, me don’t know.

— You no know. Then how you know you sick? You belly hurtin’ you?

— Yes.

— And you head woozy- woozy?

— Yes.

— You feel fat like you goin’ burst?

— Yes.

— Then you either with child or you dead. Mayhaps you breeding. Me know you was taking man, you know, you at the time now.

— No! Is sick me sick. Me can’t feel nothing, and, and, me just weak. Weak bad.

Circe look at her hard.

— Well. Make me ask one fool- fool question. You think overseer care if you sick or you well? Answer me direct. You think he care a raas? Unless you sick until you deading, you still have to get you—

— Then me deading. Circe not one for backtalk.

— That you goin’ be for sure once the overseer come here.

Circe step outside. The girl wait a while, then listen if she nearby. She move slow to the door. Circe gone. The fire still going, so she lean over it until her neck and chin well hot and some sweat start to rise out her skin. She raise her arm and let some of the heat work her armpit. But then she drop her left hand too low and near burn herself. Fire catch her skin hair and the room smell like burnin’ goat. She cuss and dip her hand in the bucket and rub it hard, trying to get the smell off. She hear people talking and run back to her mat. Then the abeng shell blow.

Circe come back. Right behind her was the thin woman who slap her once, the woman called Homer.

— See it deh she say she sick. Me no want no problem with slavedriver, you know, me no want no problem. You know how backra go on when nigger say she sick and is lazy she lazy. Me no—

— Quiet, Homer say.

Circe hiss and go outside.

Homer stoop down. The girl try to not look too ’fraid. Homer eyes thin and sharp and her cheekbone high. Her lip thin like white woman but dry and chappy. Homer have the longest neck she ever see and smell like mint one moment, lemongrass the next. None of the pickneys ever go near the big great house, not because they forbidden to play near the massa or mistress, but because they all scared of Homer. The girl feeling the same scaredness and shame and she angry that part of her still be little girl who easy to frighten. She want to be tough and hard like Circe or move slow and sure like nothing can bother her. Homer regarding her for long. The girl can’t hold her gazing so she look ’way. Then Homer touch her forehead and feel her neck. The girl hide her left hand but Homer still frown like she smell something foul. Homer touch Lilith neck again and mutter, then get up and go to the doorway.

— She have the marsh fever. Give her plenty cerasee, but don’t put no molasses in it, she say.

Circe make a big pot of cerasee tea and give Lilith to drink. Cerasee is the bitterest tea ever make and the girl cough and hack and cry but she didn’t dare spit. Circe regard her again, then say she going to town. She put on her green calico frock and shoes, one of the only negro anywhere with a pair and gone. As soon as she think Circe far away, Lilith go outside and blink at the high sun. She out there a good while, looking if she can see the negroes working from where she be. She step out further and see pickaxe and hoe swinging up in the sky, then down in the ground. Just then a cart come from round back and she jump out of the way. A niggerwoman was cursing and driving and whipping the horse hard.

Lilith go back inside to find a Johnny- jumper waiting for her.

— Word ’pon de field say you sick. She couldn’t move. The man whip on the floor beside him cutlass. Every time the flame flicker the cutlass blink.

— Me come over, me meself fi give you de bettering.

— Me, me mother, she soon come back.

— You mama who me jus’ pass goin’ to town? Lilith quiet. She think to run through the door but the thought of other Johnny- jumpers coming still her. She try to think like a woman.

— W . . . what you want from little girl? she say.

— Who tell you say you little? Penelope have two young’un and she look younger than you. Anyway, since you make me come all the way over yah fide cho- cho me nah run round no more. The Johnny- jumper take off him shirt and pull down him pantaloons. She remember him now, the same boy who say the day before that he was coming for her. She try not to look at how he ready. Plenty man come to Circe hut with it already sticking through they breeches, but they keep them on when Circe tell her to get out. And though that madman Tantalus show him cocky all the time it swing low like lame dog. Lilith thinking ’bout her bush, and how nobody tell her that is man who must decide what happen to it.

— What you name? she say.

— Dem call me Paris. You know who Paris be? She don’t answer.

— Big, big hero. Massa Jack say dat Paris stop the Trojan War.

— Circe say—

— Circe already get what she lookin’ for. Me no care ’bout she. Anyway, hear what. Pussy not doin’ me no favour all de way over deh, so get you black arse over yah.

She don’t know what to do. The Johnny- jumper on the floor with him hand waking up him cocky. She try to think that she is Circe who choose who she rut. She try to think she is Circe who don’t care when Lilith walk in on her and a free coloured from in town. If she just think ’bout that or anything else. The bat in the ackee tree, the pretty great house that just whitewash, mayhaps when she done think, he done rut. She make one step.

— Make haste, cow, he say.

He regarding her like he done fuck her already. He already grinning like man do when he leave Circe hut. The whip and cutlass on the floor. He was one of them man who didn’t even have to beat and thump and slap, him voice was enough. She feel the voice on top of her, grabbing her neck and scratching her breast. Better he jump at her like a wild beast than frighten her to come over and make her feel that she be the reason why he doin’ what he do. Better to get rip to pieces by the bush dog or wild boar in the hills than feel that she walk up to a man by herself and let him ravage her. By going to him, she rapin’ herself. The whip and cutlass on the floor. The girl move over to the man. He getting himself excited. Her heart punching a hole through her chest. The whip and the cutlass on the floor. She walk right up to him and as he hold him hand out to grab her, she dash past him and run to the fire. She grab the pot of cerasee tea and don’t care that it burnin’ her finger.

— Wha de— the man say but before him could even shift, she turn over the pot of tea on him face. The girl once hear pig scream with knife halfway ’cross it neck and she hear woman scream ’cause slave- driver take ’way her newborn young’un, but she never hear scream like that. The man bellow loud and shake the room. And didn’t stop. She scream too. He roll all over the ground and grab him face and scream more when skin and flesh coming off. The girl watching him face bubbling up and popping and the naked man spinning and bawling and jerking in the dirt. He screaming too loud. She cover her ear hard and shut her eye tight but she still hearing he scream and seeing him face. She screaming too, bawling for the noise to stop stop stop. Somebody was goin’ hear. Stop stop stop. And when they hear they would come. And then they would kill her because nobody that young must have so much wickedness. Stop stop stop. That was the first time she feel the darkness. True darkness and true womanness that make man scream. She shudder and she feel ’fraid and proud and wicked and she feel good. So good so that she get more ’fraid. The man jerking like he have fits and he still screaming. Stop stop stop stop. Somebody was goin’ hear.

Then the boy grab her foot and pull her down. The girl bawling and the boy bawling too. She turn ’way from him face. The pain too much for the boy and him fall over again and writhing and yelling. She go to run and he grab her foot again, him nails digging into her heel and she bawling like her heel just catch fire. The girl try to kick him off but him hand too strong, as if the screaming and the madness was making him stronger. Him bellowing now, like old dog or the darkest, evillest animal. The boy pull her ankle and the girl drop hard on her face. He pulling the girl towards him. She screaming. He pulling. She grab the cutlass.

Circe come right after dusk to see the floor ’wash in red. She follow the blood quick and stop at the naked Johnny- jumper foot. From foot up to thigh the black skin all chopped up with pink flesh peeking. From neck up be nothing but red. The blood didn’t stop there. The trail leave him body then turn left as if goin’ to the window. Under the window be the girl, crouching and hiding from the light. Her dress and her arms cover up in red. The cutlass at her foot, her eye wide open like dead owl and her breathing short and quick. Then she shoot a look at Circe and her two green eye make the big woman jump. Circe run out of the hut.

By nightfall she come back with Homer and two other womens. Homer walk right in but the other two womens stop when they see the body and look at the girl. Shit, one of the woman say. Lilith look straight at the three, her green eye flashing like wild animal.

— She is a mad raas, the other woman say.

Homer shush her. The woman frown. That woman short almost like a midget and her eye uncanny looking. She drive the carryall carriage that come to take the body. Homer walk over to the Johnny- jumper. Then she look at the girl. The womens, except Circe, wrap the body in black cloth. Homer shove the boy head in a sack. They put the body in the back of the carriage and the short woman ride off.

— Stupid bitch. The whole o’ we dead now, Circe say. The girl start to cry.

— Save you bawling, pussyhole. Time soon come when you goin’ bawl till you bleed.

— Shut up, Circe, Homer say.

— You shut up, dry- up cow. Me look like you pickney?

Homer look at Circe and Circe hiss.

— Come chile, we have to make haste, Homer say to the girl. Homer hold out her hand. The girl don’t look Homer in the face.

— Too spirited. She too spirited, that damn girl, Circe say. He was just goin’ cut her down a notch. Get rid of that damn pride. She just a nigger girl.

Homer stop.

— What you just say?

— She too spirited. Think she be some nigger queen. She too spirited! She did need a man to fix her, damn girl. The girl sob. Homer walk right over to Circe and slap her right cheek so hard that Circe stagger. Then she slap the left and Circe yell.

— You dead, you hear me? The two of you dead, Circe say. She bawling now. Homer grab Circe face by the cheek and squeeze hard.

— No nigger dead on this estate unless me say so, you hear me? And no nigger live either, Homer say and push Circe away.

Homer take the girl out of the hut. Circe still cussing. The girl can’t bear to look up in the sky or at Homer beside her so she stare at the ground as she walk. Even then she didn’t see the ground change from dirt to cut stone to wood floor until she feel the change under her foot. Homer open a door and they step into a dark kitchen that smell of ginger and pimento. Homer light a lamp in the dark. Orange light wash over the room but the girl still couldn’t make out anything other than a big counter in the center. Homer take her hand and lead her to another door.

Steps lead down to a cellar. The girl couldn’t see much more than the step in front of her, but smell something like that one stick of cinnamon that Circe have that she forbidden to touch. Homer lift up the candle and throw light all over the room.

— Over there, she say, pointing to a carpet on the floor.

— Over there you goin’ stay.

Homer go back up the stairs and each step she make leave the room darker and darker. When Homer reach the top of the stairs the room turn into pitch.

— Don’t come out until me tell you to, Homer say and shut the door.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Both beautifully written and devastating…Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable— even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.”
The New York Times Book Review

“The narrative voice is so assured and the descriptions so detailed and believable that one can’t help being engaged. This is a book to love. . . . The Book of Night Women is hard to pick up, even harder to put down . . . and it deserves to be read.”
Chicago Tribune

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.”
The Boston Globe

The Book of Night Women is not merely a historical novel. It is a book as heavily peopled and dark as the night in this isolated and brutal place. It is a canticle of love and hate.”
Los Angeles Times

“[Marlon James] has carved strong and compelling female figures out of the harsh landscape of nineteenth-century British-ruled Jamaica . . . The Book of Night Women’s most poignant feature is James’s sensitive and layered treatment of the unlikely romance that blossoms between Lilith and her Irish overseer.”
— The Miami Herald

“When a novel casts a powerful spell, I find myself trying to locate where it got hold of me. I knew The Book of Night Women had me when I started waking at night to worry about its characters. . . . Enslave one people and all are trapped. That familiar concept wears flesh and bone in The Book of Night Women. It stands in the wake of Toni Morrison’s transcendent slave literature, and it holds its own.”
— The Cleveland Plain- Dealer

“James has given us an epic novel of late-eighteenth-century West Indian slavery, complete with all its carnage and brutishness, but one that, like a Toni Morrison novel, whispers rather than shouts its horrors.”
Time Out New York

“The narrative voice, with its idiosyncratic inflections and storytelling warmth, will pull you into this outsized, marvelous account . . . James re-creates a world and brushes it with an element of the fantastic, but the emotions he conveys are all too real and heartbreaking.”

“If you pick up The Book of Night Women, you might lose a little sleep. The second novel from Kingston native Marlon James will have you flipping pages, thirsty for more story, late into the night. . . . Well crafted and beautifully will stay in your mind for weeks to come.”

“Darkly powerful.”
The Washington Post

The Book of Night Women is a slave narrative, a story of rebellion, and a testament to the human heart in conflict with itself. It is a book of rip and rhythm. Of violence and tenderness. Of the healing glance in all the hatred. It reads like Faulkner in another skin. It is a brave book. And like the best, and most dangerous, of stories, it seems as if it was just waiting to be told.”
—Colum McCann

“Marlon James has written an exquisite, haunting, and beautiful novel, impossible to resist. Like the best of literature, The Book of Night Women deserves to be passed down hand to hand, generation to generation.”
—Dinaw Mengestu

“With The Book of Night Women, Marlon James proves himself to be Jamaica’s answer to Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Zadie Smith. James imbues his lively, energetic prose and unforgettable characters with a precocious wisdom about love, race, and history that none of us has ever seen before, but that feels alive, even definitive, as soon as we’ve read it.”
—Colin Channer, author of The Girl with the Golden Shoes

“Marlon James’s writing brings to mind early Toni Morrison, Jessica Hagedorn, and Gabriel García Márquez.”
Kaylie Jones, author of A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

“Pile them up, a Marlon James character says repeatedly, and Marlon does just that. Pile them up: language, imagery, technique, imagination. All fresh, all exciting.”
—Chris Abani, author of The Virgin of Flames and GraceLand

“[An] epic narrative . . . as lyrical as it is hypnotic, even in the most violent passages.”
— The Independent

“A very nearly perfect work; an exquisite blend of form and content. . . . He bestows on the slave account authenticity and authority.”
— The Toronto Globe and Mail

Reading Group Guide


The Book of Night Women is the profoundly moving and authentic tale of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the turn of the eighteenth century. From her birth, the women on the plantation recognize the ancient, dark power she possesses—something that they all come to both revere and fear as they plot a revolt against their owners. As Lilith grows into her own woman, with her own aspirations, and as her passion for their plantation manager develops into a feeling deeper than she could have imagined, she threatens to become the weak link in the women’s plans.

Deeply affecting and beautifully written, The Book of Night Women instantly joins the ranks of the classic literature of slavery.

Praise for The Book of Night Women

“Beautifully written and devastating...writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable—even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.” The New York Times Book Review “A very nearly perfect work: an exquisite blend of form and content.” The Toronto Globe and Mail “The narrative voice [in The Book of Night Women] is so assured and the descriptions so detailed and believable that one can’t help being engaged. This is a book to love... engaging our deepest emotions on the greatest cultural issue of the Americas, that of race, and it deserves to be read.” Chicago Tribune


Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica. A professor of literature and creative writing at Macalester College, he divides his time among Minnesota, New York, and Jamaica.

  1. The names of the female slaves in The Book of Night Women bear a strong significance. For example, the etymological definition of Lilith is “belonging to the night” or “female night being,” and according to Mesopotamian mythology, Lilith is the bearer of disease and death. Discuss each of the night women’s names. What insights do their names provide into their characters? Why do you think the author chose to base the names of the slaves in mythology?
  2. Discuss the circumstances surrounding Lilith’s birth. Do you think having green eyes affected her disposition, if at all? Is there some occurrence surrounding her birth that signifies her having the dark power she holds?
  3. On page 217, Homer, visiting Lilith at Coulibre, tells her “You have more darkness ‘bout you now. You turning into woman.” Discuss what Homer means by this. How do different cultures signify this change from girlhood to womanhood?
  4. Although her circumstances are wildly better than Lilith’s, Isobel still seems to harbor a certain jealousy towards her. Discuss the social position of a young white woman raised in the colonies as portrayed by James. In what ways is Isobel equally as enslaved as Lilith? In what ways is Robert Quinn, whose circumstances are also better than those of the slaves he oversees, as oppressed as they are?
  5. Spirituality plays an important role throughout The Book of Night Women. Do you think that the author portrays one pathway to enlightenment better than another? Do you believe that Lilith’s power is manifested at her birth, or is it something that she developed as she grew older? Discuss the Obeah. What other versions of black magic are you aware of?
  6. Throughout the novel, the author moves between British English and Jamaican patois. What effect, if any, does the switch in language have on the narrative? What are the challenges and rewards to reading the patois? Does Isobel’s tendency to switch to Jamaican patois tell you anything about her character?
  7. After the fire at Coulibre, Isobel moves in with Humphrey at Montpelier. Shortly thereafter she begins making secret trips into town, drinking and carousing. Discuss Lilith’s reasons for covering up Isobel’s covert actions. Do they stem from guilt or a deeper sense of sisterhood?
  8. When Lilith returns to Montpelier, she’s quickly installed in the house of Robert Quinn. Did you anticipate their relationship taking the turn it did? What do you believe it is about Lilith that draws him to her? And what about Robert drew Lilith to him despite his status within her world?
  9. Despite the concerns of the other women, Homer takes Lilith into their confidence. Why do you think she does this? Is it because of the power she believes Lilith possesses? Do you believe that bringing Lilith into their confidence, in regards to the “six tell six tell six” mantra, brought about the rebellion’s downfall?
  10. One of the most significant relationships throughout the novel is the one between Lilith and Homer. Aside from the time that Homer intervened after the Johnny Jumper’s attack, what are the other pivotal moments of their relationship? Discuss how both women affect the course of each other’s lives.
  11. James begins various chapters throughout the novel with the phrase “Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will.” Discuss the various cycles he may be referring to—is he speaking of the cycle of slavery, the cycle of love between a man and a woman, or other patterns? How does this phrase help to set up the various acts within the novel?
  12. What echoes of both Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama can be found in the book? What are the effects and benefits of bringing theatrical/dramatic structures and themes to a novel?
  13. Is it fair to describe The Book of Night Women as “ultimately a love story”? Discuss how love manifests itself in the various relationships portrayed throughout the book.
  14. The Book of Night Women is written from a female perspective by a male writer. Discuss the challenges Marlon James might have faced writing from a female point of view. How might this story be different if it were told from a male perspective? Could this book have been written by a woman, and if so, how might the characters and the story be different? Do you see any qualities to the book that are distinctly masculine?
  15. How does The Book of Night Women compare to other novels about slavery, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Edward P. Jones’ The Known World? What did you find were the main differences between slavery in Jamaica and slavery in the American South, and how are those differences reflected in these novels?

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