The Jamaican slaves in Marlon James' "The Book of Night Women" (newly released in paperback) have been given ancient names -- Lilith, Homer, Tantalus, etc. These names point to the pedantry of the slaves' masters and overseers, whose devotion to the Enlightenment is boundlessly hypocritical, and they remind us that the novel's themes are the stuff of Bible stories or Greek drama: violence, vice and vengeance; good and evil; profoundly complicated familial and romantic ties and the dilemmas they sow.
The novel, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction and for a Minnesota Book Award, is the second from the Jamaican-born James, who teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul. Set on a sugar plantation at the start of the 19th century, the book centers on Lilith, a green-eyed teenager of uncanny vitality who is reluctantly, ineluctably drawn into a circle of women plotting a major insurrection.
"Night Women" is written in a careful vernacular not quite of its time but evocative of it. Some rhythmic monotony and awkward historical exposition creep in here and there, but the book's spell soon recovers, often through a sharp simile: "The preacher red and fat like a choking pig," for instance, or, "but as be the way of other things in the colony, some rules of Mother England get toss away like crinoline."
This last is an understatement. When a society's foundation is immoral, evil aspires to the clouds, and here the reader is rarely too many pages away from a rape, torture, murder or dismemberment. Craftily, James builds up our taste for vengeance and then undercuts it as we follow Lilith's own enlightenment to the book's layered conclusion.