Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will. A circle like the sun, a circle like the moon, a circle like bad tidings that seem gone but always, always come back.”- Marlon James, The Book of Night Women
When I first read this book in 2012, I didn’t think I would ever read it again. The depictions of violence were really hard to read, mainly because I knew that although they were fictional, they were probably very representative of what had taken place to people who looked like me. However, I decided to bite the bullet and read it again, mainly because Marlon James was going to be at one of the events I attended a fortnight ago, and also to see how differently I read it the second time around.
I’m so glad I did reread it. There was a lot to take in during the first read and in retrospect I don’t think I could have seen enough the first time around. Also, with additional knowledge of slavery, and also with being familiar with the story from my first read, I was able to understand the story at a much deeper level. I was even able to look more closely at the other stories I had “missed.” For example, the “romance” of sorts between the main character, slave Lilith, and the Irish overseer, Quinn, a romance that came about due to two lonely people, lonely for different reasons. When we may often see homogeneity in whiteness, it was clear from this book that that was not the case in the colonies, and there was a rigid hierarchy of race, even within whiteness. A book that was recommended by my favourite professor is “How The Irish Became White”, and in this book it was interesting to see how the Irish man was treated by the English, French etc.
To me, this has been a lesson in the benefits of rereading. My first read left a very visceral reaction; I felt indignant and angry, almost nauseous at times. I felt things weren’t fair and that the atrocities that happened to slaves were never atoned for. I know I’m a sensitive reader and reading this gave me a helpless feeling. The pain was too real, the lack of support that these people received, mainly because they were black and not considered capable of worthy thought, subhuman in fact, was always at the back of my mind:
“You tried to use the mind, the brain, but you silly girl, those things are lost to the negro. What you have is a back that won’t break, a skin that won’t crack, legs like an ox and teeth like a horse.”
During my second reading, I was also struck by the cognitive dissonance of the slave-owners; the fact that the black were the ones who were considered uncivilized and subhuman, yet it was the so-called “civilized” Europeans who came up with so many inhumane ways to shame, humiliate, hurt and destroy these people, was something that made me wonder how could they could see their cruel actions as acceptable. I would not want to live in their heads.
In spite of the harsh and graphic content in this book, I would highly recommend it. There were moments of triumph, in spite of the situation the characters find themselves in, and Marlon James is a great storyteller.