Another novel set 18th and early 19th century Jamaica? And with another high-spirited mulatta girl as the protagonist? Was I a glutton for punishment? More importantly, what more could I learn that I had all ready gotten from Andrea Levy's novel? Yet I was curious to see how two authors would handle the same material. I also was on the look-out for another audio book, and when I saw Robin Miles, who was the female narrator in Krik? Krak! I was tempted. Yet I had been warned by many reviews Marlon James's book was unbearably brutal; something Andrea Levy had been determined to avoid. I hated to waste the money on an audio book that I wouldn't listen to--somehow a poor audio book seems a far worse decision than another format as the time wasted is so much greater---but it was Robin Miles, so I took the chance.
Just as with "The Long Song", the narrative tone is not what the reader expects. Someone is telling the story with a strange mixture of casual vulgarity and education--but who can this person be? It's someone who doesn't quite have the carefully acquired refinement of Miss July from "The Long Long", but it is also not Lilith, the heroine, either. Just as with "The Long Song", the Book of Night Women" opens with the birth of a light-eyed mulatta girl--only Lilith's mother dies. The novel starts off with this harsh reality, and continues from there as Lilith, the unwanted daughter, is grudgingly raised, as was Teresita in "The Hummingbird's Daughter", by a foster mother who is pretty much indifferent as to whether her charge lives or dies.
As I said, many people said that this story is too terrible to finish.. I didn't find it to be so. Maybe I have read too much Holocaust literature, but I didn't find Lilith's tale unbearable. Of course, the lives of the slaves are Brutally hard, and James doesn't spare the details. He doesn't forget, however, that Lilith is a smart-mouthed teenage girl; she doesn't lose her individuality in the greater story of bondage; I often found myself laughing as her smart-alack exchanges with the other slaves, particularly with Homer, the cook who takes her under her wing. There were times that I just wanted to shake her, which I believe is exactly what the author intended. Even the terrible event, upon which Lilith's life turns; isn't completely cut and dried; it partly was Lilith's fault; she isn't completely an innocent victim. And the violence, too, isn't all that it seems; twice, at the most crucial points, the author delicately withdraws to spare both Lilith and the reader. And James also remembers that, finally, "The Book of Night Women is the most unlikely of love stories.
I loved "The Night Women". I would get caught up in the narrative and return from 18th century Jamaica with a start. And Robin Miles was brilliant; her rendition of Isabel (the constant thorn in Lilith's side) as a white creole woman drawn into the rhythm of the speech of the slaves who surround her was a tour de force of narration. I did have a few quibbles; Lilith's experience at Isabel's home strays a bit into Mandingo territory; and there's a bit of slackness to the narrative as the titular Night Women slowly plan Jamaica's great slave rebellion. But these are minor quibbles.
And the mystery narrator? That's explained, too, most satisfyingly, in the epilogue.
Four and a half Stars