Friday, September 11, 2015

Notes on The Book of Night Women

Marlon James won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Book of Night Women.  However, many of the reader reviews I read were greatly disparate.  People either loved or hated this novel—there was no in between.  Sometimes this is a good sign, so I went to the library to check out the book.

I re-read Chapter 1 three times (another good sign) because: 1) the narrative voice is written in patois, and it took effort for my American mind to adjust; 2) the content is hauntingly powerful, and it took effort for my mind to adjust; and 3) James inundates the reader with such depth of imagery, plot and character development that the reader is thrust head first into the world of Montpellier Plantation and 18th/19th Century Jamaica.

After the third read of Chapter 1, I looked up from James’s book and thought: Where am I?  What is it?  I love that feeling!  That’s how it should be when you’re reading a book—like falling in love.  I was sitting on the patio of a coffee shop on a sunny morning.  It was a Saturday.  I was not a slave girl on a Jamaican sugar plantation.  I was not longing for a mother who was not my mother, as Lilith, James’s protagonist, is.   I also remember thinking: I have to finish this book, but reading this patois is wearing me out!  Indeed, the patois narrative voice was a consistent complaint in the negative reader reviews.

Writing in a non-mainstream narrative voice is always a gamble because…well, readers seem to think it’s impolite.  It distorts the power dynamic between the reader, the author and the book.  Readers read because they want to be told a story (My use of passive voice is purposeful.).  The average reader wants to passively be taken away by the story (and, in effect, by the author) to a kinder, gentler place.  To catapult the reader into, for instance, the South and a southern drawl, as Mark Twain does in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is to infringe on the reader’s comfort level and force him/her to view the world through the narrator’s eyes.  This process, when done well, cannot display a kinder, gentler world because the narrator becomes real to the reader, and real people exist in a world that is often mean and abrasive.  A strong narrative voice is rarely a mainstream one.  Because Twain understood this, he is revered as a master of narrative voice.  With The Book of Night Women, Marlon James has also earns the reverence of narrative voice master.

I bought the audio recording of The Book of Night Women and this allowed me to experience the book with ease.  James does not over-simplify plantation life and black-white relationships the way Kathleen Grissom does in The Kitchen House.  He demonstrates the racism and dehumanization of slavery and allows readers to see how these factors were integral to white dominance and the country’s economy.  Through the experiences of his characters, readers have the chance to understand that slavery, with all its racism and dehumanization, destroys black people and white people, though in drastically different ways.  As expected, this novel changed my life.  This is another book that is so raw, so true that it gives me permission to be raw and true in my own work.

We may read books of literature, in part, because we want to escape, but we also read books of literature because we want to somehow change for having read them.  Each day that I played The Book of Night Women in my car, I experienced the full spectrum of human emotion.  Strangers in vehicles beside mine witness me yelling, crying, laughing, and covering my mouth in utter disbelief.  For the rest of my life I will remember Lilith, and the Johnny-Jumpers, and Homer, and Quinn, and the revolt, and the blood, and the sheer power of Marlon James’s writing.

My 3C’s rating is as follows:

Competent Writing: 4
James’s writing is lyrical and exceptional.  I place this book in the company of Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Famished Road, Revolutionary Road and Sula.

Character Development: 4
James’s character development is outstanding.  The female characters love, kill, seduce and fight for freedom.  The male characters are equally strong.  Even the secondary and tertiary characters are completely believable.

Content: 4
The plot is enthralling.  Gotta love a slave revolt!  James’s tone is urgent and authoritative, yet he unfolds details in such a way that you never feel that your intelligence is being insulted.  You trust that you will be surprised and frightened and overwhelmed and calmed and then the emotional roller coaster starts all over again.  There are so many themes in this book!  Familial relationships, same-sex platonic relationships, black-white dynamics (platonic and sexual), black femininity and masculinity, white femininity and masculinity, sexuality, power and dominance, slavery, race, gender, interracial relationships, economics.  I could go on all day!

Total 3C’s Score: 12/12

This is one of the most exceptional books I’ve ever read!  I recommend The Book of Night Women for writers, Intellectual Readers, Casual Literary Readers, Elitist Literary Readers.  I think it should be required reading in high schools and college African-American studies classes, Caribbean studies classes, literature classes and women studies classes.  

No comments:

Post a Comment