On Marlon James and The Book of Night Women

Last year I met the very talented Marlon James by accident at a PEN event. Afterward, he joined my friends Mark Sarvas and Amitava Kumar, and me, for a marvelous dinner at which I ate too little while drinking brown liquor. James and I talked about William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Jean Rhys, and I argued (passionately, but not, I fear, entirely lucidly) with Sarvas and Kumar about James Wood.

It was the kind of evening that makes me love living in New York City, except for one thing: even though my acquaintance with Marlon James has nothing to do with my immense admiration for his new novel, The Book of Night Women, I have a rule against reviewing books written by anyone I’ve ever talked to for more than two minutes.

But I can and will be interviewing him about it here,* and am putting together an event featuring it, and I hope you will all pick the novel up in a bookstore and try it out. Be sure to read a few pages before you decide that the dialect is too difficult. It is not too difficult.

The Book of Night Women focuses on a group of female slaves who plan an uprising on a Jamaican plantation, but it’s so much more intense — by which I mean terrifying and romantic and depressing and destabilizing and complicated — than that description suggests. I have no idea how he wove all the strands together the way he did.

You can watch James talking about the story above. There are raves in the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Bookslut. Megan Sullivan of Harvard Book Store loves it, as does my friend Marie Mockett (a writer I’ll be featuring alongside James and photographer Stephanie Keith at a “Powerful Women” event on May 1 at Housing Works).

Here’s part of a note I sent the author at Facebook the night after I got back from England, when I read the book in one sitting.

Hang it all, I was supposed to take a nap, and then wake up and do some work today. Instead I read your amazing book. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, even though I turned the light off several times and put the pillow over my head and had both cats lying on the bed with me. I would last three minutes before I picked up The Book of Night Women again.

James reads twice next week, on Monday and Tuesday, and is also featured on March 8 with National Book Award winner Annette Gordon-Reed at a Girls Write Now event.

* Updated 4/2009: My interview with Marlon about The Book of Night Women.


Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to my free newsletter, Ancestor Trouble.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.