The Book of Night Women is a fictional novel by Marlon James. It’s set in his birthplace of Jamaica during slavery. If you are looking for a review rather than a recap of the book with spoilers, you can find it here.
Lilith is born a slave but has an unusual feature, green eyes. Her mother died in childbirth in 1785, and she grows up with Circe and Tantalus, two slaves who somehow avoided working. Circe has little affection for Lilith and while Tantalus is kind, he is also mad. The overseer, Jack Wilkins, castrated him for masturbating while watching the mistress of the house.
Circe kicked Tantalus out after she sat on the armchair, finding he had peed in it. After that, he was tied to a tree for a while before he tried to run away. He was caught and returned to Montpelier where his foot was cut off as punishment. He continued to deteriorate after that and one day, he was dead.
A New Master
The master of the estate, Wilson Humphrey, came back changed from fighting in a war. He suffered from night terrors and left the running of Montpelier to his wife and overseer. He died from breaking his neck after being flung from his horse while riding hard towards a tree.
After Mr. Wilson died, the overseer Jack Wilkins ordered Lilith to report to work in the field. However, when a Johnny-jumper, a slave who kept other slaves in check, tried to rape her, she attacked him with a pan of hot water.
Homer and some other women found Lilith and the johnny jumper. They helped her finish him off and dispose of the body. Then Homer kept Lilith primarily in the basement, letting her clean that space.
Master Humphrey Returns
Ship travel was slow, but the son eventually arrived at Montpelier. He was accompanied by an Irish friend, Robert Quinn.
Humphrey and Quinn took to carousing and enjoying their bachelorhood. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilson was slowly losing her mind, with only brief periods of lucidity. During one of these periods, she decided to have a Christmas ball.
Lilith gradually inserts herself in the activities of the other house slaves. Despite the rumor that she was responsible for the johnny jumper’s death, she managed to evade the johnny jumpers a long while. Then at Christmas, they cornered her and planned to kill her. However, one of the men got sick while dragging her and that scared the men, so they ran off and left her alone.
Lilith had her sights on Humphrey. She thought he might be her ticket to a better life. However, he paid little attention to her and this worsened when Miss Isobel showed up from a nearby plantation, Coulibre, to help with the planning for the ball.
When Lilith was not chosen to serve at the ball, she got desperate and paid one of the women, Pallas, to do Obeah so that she would replace another house slave, Andromeda. Within days, Andromeda bled to death and Lilith was needed to take her place. Lilith was afraid and felt guilty when the woman died. Although she wanted to replace the woman at the Christmas party, she hadn’t specifically requested that she be killed.
Humphrey’s friend, Robert Quinn, is an Irishman and is considered uncouth and uncivilized because of this. Quinn works on the plantation, taking on the role of overseer from Jack Wilkins who had been embezzling and making himself too comfortable after the death of Patrick Wilson.
Quinn and Robert are very close friends after Quinn helped Robert clean up some violent outbursts in Venice. They go out most nights, returning home in the morning. White men seem to have free rein in Jamaica.
Negro take heed of the case of William Clarke, who rape and strangle five negro girl but nobody arrest until he kill Worthy Park Estate most expensive slave and get lock up for destroying property, not murder. But that don’t stop the white man. As for the white woman, she can only turn her eye and sip tea.
The habits of Quinn and Humphrey changes once Isobel interjects herself into life at Montpelier. Then, she and Humphrey start spending time together, and he reduces his extracurricular activities.
The Night Women
Homer invited Lilith to a meeting one night. There were five other women there – Gorgon, Iphigenia, Hippolyta, Pallas and Callisto. They told her that they were all fathered by Jack, as evidenced by a common feature that they all shared – green eyes. They invited her to join their plans for freedom. They met during full moons.
Lilith resisted what the other women told her. She didn’t quite understand what their meetings were about and decided it was obeah.
Six tell six tell six, she remembers the cave and the words like a chant.
A Serious Accident
In the end, Lilith had to stand in place of Andromeda at the ball. She had little time for training, but lots of confidence. Hoping that Humphrey would notice her, she ensured her bodice was tight and her breasts prominent when adjusting the uniform to fit her bigger, taller body. As she left the kitchen carrying hot soup, she swiveled into Isobel’s chaperone and dropped the steaming soup all over the lady, burning her terribly.
Quinn jumped into action, carrying the lady with some other men to be taken for medical care. Lilith he left in the hands of the slave drivers for punishment.
A Slave’s Punishment
Lilith was taken and abused by four slave drivers. When they were done, she was incredibly beaten and bruised. They left her covered in their fluids and walked away. Homer found her and nursed her with the other women.
Before Lilith could fully recover, she was tied up to a tree by three Johnny-jumpers and beaten. Isobel demanded it as further punishment, and Lilith got 10 lashes during each of Isobel’s twice-weekly visits. The scars from the lashings were like a quilt on Lilith’s back. While she would cry and whimper at the beginning of the beatings, by the end, she only winced and stared right at Robert Quinn, and watched him look away. Once they cut the rope that help her up for her beatings, she would pick up herself and keep her chin raised as she walked away
Isobel knew the ways of the slaves, having lived on the island her whole life. She could even speak like them. She warned Lilith from Humphrey and then arranged to send Lilith for training to her mother at the Coulibre estate. As Quinn drive through town to take Lilith to Isobel’s home, for the first time Lilith got to see other slaves being sold at the market.
The Coulibre Estate
At Isobel’s family’s plantation, her mother was in charge. She took on the training and discipline of Lilith. Lilith was whipped frequently, as permission had been granted by Robert to do so.
Mr. Roget was a judge. He liked to have the slaves be sexual playthings to him. As Lilith bathed him one morning, he started to fondle her. Although she hadn’t planned to do it, when the opportunity presented itself, she drowned him. When the other house slave found her, she decided to go after her too. She thought about the two younger Roget children but in the end, she went downstairs, got a torch and lit the house on fire. She decided that she would let the whole family burn.
When the men from nearby estates arrived to try to save the house, Lilith put on a show. She explained how she had been milking the cows when the fire started and tried to enter to save the children but couldn’t. Although her story was suspicious, no one could prove otherwise. However, the way that Mr. Roget was found in the tub with some blood suggested foul play. Isobel accused Lilith of murdering her family.
Again at Montpelier
Lilith returned to Montpelier. The house slaves watched her with suspicion, believing that she had killed the Roget family. For the first time, she learned Homer’s story about her children, how she loved them even though they were the product of rape, and how the mistress sold them away.
Back at Montpelier, Quinn took interest in Lilith, watching and studying her. When he found her wandering in the fields one night, he took her to his home and tried to find out what she was up to. She admitted nothing.
Eventually, Quinn got permission from Robert to live with Lilith in his hut. She was surprised that he was kind to her, and a bond developed between them. The other house slaves make fun of her for it, reminding her that Quinn was responsible for the whippings of the slaves. He may not have relished it as Humphrey or Isobel did, but he played his part in keeping the slaves in line and punishing them. In fact, he was directly responsible for the quilt on her back. He may not have wielded the whip, or even ordered the punishment, but he’d overseen it.
After her family’s death, Isobel started disappearing at night. She would dress in men’s clothing and take off on horseback, returning in the morning. Lilith realized what was going on and watched out for her, also cleaning the clothes so no one would notice what she was up to. When Quinn eventually realized what was going on, he followed her to town and found her in an opium den. There, she would be out of her mind of what was going on. She seemed to be carrying on with men in her state of inebriation.
Plan for freedom
The night women continued to meet and invited Lilith. She sometimes ignored their invitation, but she also attended some meetings. There she learned the women’s plan to kill as many white people as they could and escape. The plan had been spread to other plantations so that the revolt would happen all over the island at once.
To ensure their plan went through, Homer and the women needed to take care of any slaves that were traitors. This almost derailed their plans when one of the women they killed, Athena, was found by the slave drivers. One of the men was tortured until he admitted Homer’s role. She was strung up to a tree, and as she was getting whipped, the men got distracted by black smoke indicating a fire at a nearby plantation.
On the day of the revolt, Lilith gave Quinn a tea that put him to sleep. The other women wanted her to kill him, but she chose not to. Then, she went to Jack’s house and defended him and his wife against the slaves who tried to attack them.
Pallas went to the library and opened the gun cabinet to get the rifles there. There were 9 women, each with two rifles. They would keep one rifle each, and give the other to some of the men in the field.
The slaves at Montpelier killed a few of the white people there, but most of the slaves run away rather than fighting. Also, the redcoat troops had been warned, and they showed up to round up the slaves, kill them and jail them.
Homer went after Mrs. Wilson. She had been slowing poisoning the woman and had caused her to lose her mind. She finally succeeded in killing her. Homer’s body was riddled with bullets, and she fell out of the bedroom window after the mistress, landing on the balcony instead of on the ground.
The slaves that were caught were burned or locked up. Lilith was one of the ones that was locked up. Humphrey got her out to take care of Isobel after learning how she helped protect Jack Wilkins.
Magical realism is entangled with obeah and perhaps premonition. Lilith gets visited by “the dark woman”, either a premonition or a confirmation of death, throughout the book, the first time after Andromeda is killed, and the last time during the revolution, after Robert Quinn is killed. At first, she confronted Homer, thinking it was Homer coming to her room in the dark, but then she accepted Homer’s response that it was not her. She could not quite figure out what the apparition wanted. And then, there’s also the old woman who lives in the forest and knows the whole story, the one who smells of lemongrass and mint, a smell that was distinct to Homer.
The Ending of The Book of Night Women
The sentence “every negro walks in a circle” appears multiple times in the book. In the last chapter of The Book of Night Women, James adds on that “sometimes when a negro die and another negro take him place, even if that negro not be blood, they still fall in step in the same circle”. A slave has few choices in life and no control over their own life, and are susceptible to death at any time. While new slaves will be bought for Montpelier, the cycle continues and “white man sleep with one eye open, but black man can never sleep”.
Here, we meet Lilith’s daughter, Lovey Quinn. She has been the narrator of the story. Her mother named her after her father.
We find out that she first wrote about her mother with the words, “I going’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her”.
Lovey ends the story, telling us how the uprising ended. Humphrey went back to England, leaving Isobel behind but giving her access to the house. Isobel is pregnant, but Humphrey doesn’t recognize the child as his own given her habits. Lilith kept living with Jack Wilkins until he died; the new overseer lived in a new house. The night women each have a song. Hippolyta and Callisto were killed in the fighting. Pallas was captured by the Maroons and turned over to the redcoats, who slowly burned her to death. Gorgon died in the gibbet. While Gorgon didn’t cry as she died, she talked, telling the story of the women but leaving out Lilith. Iphigenia was the one who sold out the others to the British and has no song.
Lilish told everything to her daughter. They will sing the song only once.