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The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. 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 and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link.
Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion—between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently—and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.
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Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in literature. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
(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?
— You not goin’ inquire after her? Who you mama be?
— 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.
— 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 mo...
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Book Description ONE WORLD, 2009. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1851687211