Reading Guide

The Book of Night Women

The Book of Night Women

INTRODUCTION

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
 

ABOUT MARLON JAMES

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.
 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  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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