Born into bondage in the corrupted paradise of a sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century, a time of uprisings and rebellion, Lilith has little hope of escaping a life ruled by the whip. But, like the slave women who fear her the instant she opens her eyes, Lilith sees life differently.
Lilith is at the heart of this novel, born to a thirteen year old slave who dies during her birth, a black girl with green eyes. Someone is looking out for her though she doesn’t realise it until much later. After she kills a would-be rapist, she falls under the care of Homer, a trusted slave who runs the kitchen. Homer disposes of the body and hides Lilith from the man’s compatriots who suspect her. It is Homer who later introduces her to the Night Women, a secret gathering of women who are planning a revolt.
Like James’ most famous novel, Night Women is written in conversational patois. We only discover the identity of the narrator at the end but the style works, and with only the one voice it is much easier to immerse yourself into. The hardest read is the violence. James does not shy away from what life would have been like for a slave in Jamaica at the time. Lilith’s first real taste of punishment comes when she accidentally spills soup on a guest at the New Year ball:
Lilith couldn’t move. She looking but she not seeing, she listening but she not hearing, all the sounds come like one sound and she can’t hear nothing. She don’t even see it, when Massa Humphrey take all the rage of the lord and slam her knuckles in her face. Lilith stagger back, but she didn’t fall. Before she can think, he punch her in the chest, then straight in the mouth and she fall and spit blood. He about to pounce ‘pon her like animal, but Robert Quinn jump in and catch him first.
After this beating Lilith is whipped on a regular basis until her unknown saviour finally makes himself known. This book visits dark places, following these desperate women who know that their lives are worth almost nothing (less than $200 Lilith discovers when she is taken past a slave auction on a shopping trip) and that they can be killed over the smallest things. All of the Night Women bear scars, from whipping, being burned as punishment, from rape.
Lilith herself is a fascinating character. By the end of the first chapter she is already a murderer herself, and she kills on more than one occasion when in fear for her life. She sees herself as separate from the other women, even the others who share her green eyes. She hates that she is related to them and constantly battles against the other women. It is only Homer’s influence that keeps the women together.
The relationship between Lilith and Robert Quinn, the overseer, is also intriguing. Quinn likes to think of himself as a civilised man, and as an Irishman is also discriminated against by most of the white community. He confuses Lilith with his kindness, though he is also quick to strike her when he suspects her of keeping secrets and scheming. He is her first thought during the inevitable uprising though she know she risks her own life in doing so.
This book has incredible drama, lifted straight from history. It is reminiscent of Wide Sargasso Sea in that Massa Humphrey is a perfect Rochester, the so-called good man with uncontrollable fits of rage, Isobel Roget his Bertha Mason who slowly goes mad, the destruction of her family and dependence on drugs leading her there. I was also reminded of Toni Morrison, for the unflinching telling of a story that can be hard to read. The women rule this book and James writes them as though seeing the world through their eyes. I was gripped from start to finish and will be thinking of this story for a long time to come.