A Review (and giveaway): The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller
…perhaps in all of this you would take away the most valuable lesson, that to write down a story from the past, you must be loose with the facts; you must only be true to the truth.
A few elements of fiction that may make me wary:
- Multiple narrators
- Second person narration
- Mythology and/or divisive cultural practices and beliefs
The more difficult such a tool is, the more dramatically it can be employed well or poorly. For each wary-inducing device I have listed, I can name beautiful books that rely on it, authors that excel at it (Faulker several times over, Twain, Calvino, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Alice Munro, The Things They Carried, Gaiman, Achebe).
But to combine all of the above? To bring me to the pique of consternation and, still, to succeed?
The Last Warner Woman tells the story (from two viewpoints: sometimes in dialect, sometimes in the second person, sometimes from the writer’s perspective) of one of the last Warners, a religious authority in Revivalist Christianity that, through spiritual intervention, can predict the—often but not always abysmal—future. The book’s overtones are about race and struggle and compassion; the undertones, many, are layers of thought about gender and sexuality, the construction of narratives, and how greatly reality shifts for each person.
So, after all, Miller may have been very wise to smash so many narrative devices into his story—they not only demonstrate his talent but reflect something of his point. Reality is not singular.
Miller shows this, naturally, from the beginning. “Mr. Writer Man,” as our Warner Woman calls him, begins his story so: “Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica.” Mr. Writer Man then neatly, with humor and keen details, tells how Pearline Portious, a young woman who liked to knit colorful doilies that no one would buy, began to knit bandages for the leper colony’s residents.
After setting the basic story, the author introduces the dual narration, begins to explore the trouble with truth. The Last Warner Woman, Pearline Portious’s daughter, disagrees with the narrative the readers have been fed. The story begins again:
…if you read what I did read, that Once Upon A Time There Was A Leper Colony In Jamaica, then you need to understand something straight away: that is a make-up story, a lie from the pit of hell…It wasn’t once upon a time. It is still there today and I can go back and visit anytime I wants to…when Mr. Writer Man did start to write this story, he should have put down two words to begin it all. Crick, Crack. And if he did start the story like that we would all know that his world was just a world of make believe.
So begins a subtle bickering between narratives and a so-deft-as-to-be-unbelievable weaving of stories that often do not cohere. Mr. Writer Man is researching a novel. At some time, he visits Jamaica. At another time, he finds Adamine, now living in England. He admits, “…there is something that happens when the writer begins to reveal himself…It compels him, quite frankly, toward honesty. So what if I were to tell you—I am not actually sure where the beginning of this book is.” I cannot be sure either but do not care. The story is Adamine’s. No matter how Writer Man intrudes, what role he plays, he only recounts and seeks out her story.
Which is a tremendous one. From the leper colony to the Revivalist Church, from a visit to a Jamaican strip club to an arranged marriage in England, Miller creates a compelling, sympathetic life. And a believable one, Jamaican dialect and all; Adamine needs her “did born”s and “pickney”s and misuse of articles so we can believe in her role as a Warner Woman in Jamaica, as a stranger in England. She notes the discrepancy:
What white man go to on Sunday, that thing name church; but what black woman go to name cult. What white man worship is the living God himself; but what black woman worship name Satan or Beelzebub. Whatever it is that white man accept in his heart is a thing that make all the sense in the world; but what black woman accept in her heart is stupidness and don’t worth a farthing.
Of course, she’s right. Miller’s book is much more than a condemnation of the (still) stubborn racial, class, and gender barriers, so when this passage appears, we notice. Its truth seems more stark. By this time, we know Adamine as a spiritual and, yes, eccentric woman, the kind who can look at an evil man and say, “‘Him is the one who name Abaddon. Him name is Rutibel. Some call him The Wicked One. Know his name, my people. Is him that name Satan.’” As she becomes more entrenched in Warning, her relationship with society falters; eventually, it fails entirely.
On official UK documents, Adamine’s “Religious Persuasion” is not listed. Blank. Her church and the life she understands are far away. Even the truth evades her as she begins to wonder if her own story is not quite what she thought: “…maybe some of the things that this Writer Man has put down on his paper is true after all. Like maybe he find out things I been trying to forget my whole life.” Maybe a story does not start at the beginning.
Once upon a time a writer wrote a splendid story, about a writer who wrote a story about a woman who warned. He used many devices to tell the story of her life and created a story of great depths. If you’ve read it, you know this. If you haven’t, I have two things to tell you: her name is Adamine Bustamante and she was born amongst the lepers. Go read about her.
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One lucky reader will receive a free copy of The Last Warner Woman, courtesy of Coffee House Press. To enter: “Like” or “reblog” this post. If you do both, you get two entries! But only two. Tweet about the book/my review/Coffee House Press/Kei Miller/the giveaway and include the hashtag #WarnerWinner. One entry per Twitter account. If you have neither Tumblr nor Twitter, send me an email with your contact information—use the contact link in the sidebar. One entry per person. Entries must be submitted by midnight tonight, EST.
Fun for everyone: use the discount code BOOKSMATTER30 on the Coffee House Press website and receive 30% off of this wonderful book! Support small presses! Order now!
The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller
Coffee House Press, March 2012
ISBN: 9781566892957. 270 pp.
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- readwritechef said: Just saying I love your review. I read this book quite some time ago. I’m a fan of Kei’s and it’s great seeing a Jamaican author embraced like this.
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