The best novels are not simply great stories; the magic comes in the telling. Kei Miller’s 2010 novel ‘The Last Warner Woman’ is as much about storytelling as it is about the characters themselves. Miller plays with the reader’s perception of how a novel should be structured and examines how the same story must be different in every telling, and also in every reception. The result is a novel which delights in wrong footing the reader; just when you think you have a hold on the story Miller takes you in another direction, or introduces another point of view, and you almost have to start again, or at least rethink what you know.
‘The Last Warner Woman’ begins, as all the best stories do, with “Once upon a time…” as Adamine Bustamante tells her story to her erstwhile biographer, who she calls Mr Writer Man, and who you may or may not view as the real (unreliable?) narrator. This relationship is not an easy one as the interaction between writer and subject reveals different ideas as to how her story is to be told.
Born in a leper colony, Adamine’s life is extraordinary, although this is something she never seems to realise or admit for herself. To her it is just another life, and there is some suspicion as to why anyone would be interested in her. She is the last warner-woman, the name for a woman who warns about impending natural disasters, such as hurricane, tidal waves and earthquakes. The title is just a tiny example of the games played with language and expectations. Characters are known by multiple names, people and places are mentioned in conversation once as if you should know them, and then never again, and you can’t let your concentration drop for moment. It’s a novel which demands commitment from its readers, but that commitment is well worth it.
Miller brings the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Jamaica to life, and his novel is “a conundrum of colours”, to steal one of Adamine’s phrases. The colourful bandages that her mother made which are then used to treat the lepers are a personal highlight, but almost every page contains similarly arresting imagery. This is also a result of the most wonderful use of language. The expressive patois in which most of the novel is written is used to conjure imagery which is magical, and once you get a hang of reading it there is a cadence to the novel which is almost lyrical.
Aside from the way the novel is constructed, Miller has also introduced us to a fine array of memorable characters; most of whom are women. The novel is defined by the friendships with other women which Adamine has through out her life; from the maternal ‘Mother Lazarus’ to the ‘Nurse’ who treats her in the hospital she finds herself in in England when her portentous prophecies are seen as a sign of madness. Her relationships with men, however, are almost all destructive, and it is little wonder that she finds it difficult to trust ‘Mr Writer Man’ and his true intentions.
Not a musical interlude this month. I thought that, since Kei Miller is also a poet, clips of him reading some of his work would be most appropriate. This is ‘The Longest Song’ followed by ‘The Law Concerning Mermaids’.
Miller is probably better known for his poetry, with his recent collection ‘The Cartographer Tries To Map A Way To Zion’ awarded the prestigious Forward prize (and which I can’t recommend highly enough), but I hope he finds time to write more fiction as there are not enough novelists willing to play with form and narrative with such confidence and élan. Whether you read it “straight” or “crossways”, ‘The Last Warner Woman’ is a lesson in how to construct a novel, and how to tell a story, in a fresh and interesting way.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: After ‘The Last Warner Woman’ we make the return trip from the UK back to the West Indies in Chris Dolan’s ‘Redlegs’. Elspeth Davies is a Scottish actress who gets a job on Barbados for the enigmatic plantation owner Lord Coak, which leads to a life she could never have imagined.
Dolan’s novel asks questions about nation and the ties that bind us to a place; past, present and future, as a New Caledonia is promised to Elspeth. In doing so colonialism and slavery are examined in a manner which is unexpected and, ultimately, courageous.