The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller begins: "Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica." This fairytale narrative voice, created by the character of “the writer,” seems to address you, the reader. As the haunting central character, Adamine Bustamante, tells us: "Sometimes you have to tell a story the way you dream a dream, and everyone know that dreams don't walk straight." To enter the dream of this story is to get caught up in a wonderful web.
When young Pearline Portious goes off to sell a doily she has knit in unconventional purple rather than white (although none of her colorful creations ever sell), we know she will be tested. She finds the remote leper colony. Ancient Mother Lazarus, who nurses and succors the disfigured and outcast colony residents, suffers unrelenting insomnia as a result of her own past tragedies. She longs to be able to give in to the final sleep if she could only find someone to carry on her work. "She believed . . . that desperation would go out into the world in search of whatever that was needed." Pearline is the answer to her prayers, and she convinces the young woman to enter under her tutelage.
Suddenly another voice interrupts this tale, "an installment of a testimony spoken to the wind. . . . Shhhhhhhh":
I don't know who you is. I don't know where in the world you even is right now, but I believe you is there . . . and that you is hearing me. I need to talk what I talking soft. I must not wake up the samfie man who I discover is writing down all manner of lies for you. He is writing down my story as if that story was a snake. . . . But hear me now, if his words is a snake then mine is a mongoose chasing after him. . . . I going to set the record right. I going to unbend the truth. So listen close.
We are listening to the testimony of Adamine Bustamante, born in the leper colony to the unfortunate Pearline. We learn that Mother Lazarus does not get her wish because Pearline dies giving birth. The leper colony is just a house, Adamine says, and "Not no valley. . . . no deep back-a-God country part of the island. . . . Just the ugly squalor of Spanish Town—same place where the news today say is full of gunshot and gullies." How and why is Adamine present to expose fictionalization of "truth" by the character of “the writer”? It’s her testimony against his.
Adamine runs away from the leper colony to join a group of revivalists where she becomes known as a warner woman, a Cassandra who foresees calamity. She gets caught up with the minions leaving Jamaica after WWII for the "mother country." She goes from a bad marriage to incarceration in a mental institution in a culture that understands her warner woman urgency as madness.
“The writer” says he's embroidering the facts to seek emotional truth. He brings Adamine, now discharged from the hospital, to stay in his flat though we wonder why she agrees. But now we can locate her voice. He hopes that in leaving clues, she will remember her past. The "you" transforms from outward address into self-narration: "you make sure to print out certain parts of this story, hoping she will read it and maybe disagree with parts . . . what you really want is that one day she might remember you." Gradually, “the writer” enters his story directly. It is also the story of his own quest.
Within this complex structure Miller creates a world of details like a Brueghel painting: women in the Saturday market practicing the high art of derision; the leprous school teacher, Lily, reading Jane Eyre over and over; the Spanish Town registrar’s office clerks with "tight perms and tighter lips.” We meet Adamine's ex-husband in his apartment, gone to chaos without a woman: "It was as if he began to misplace bits of the structure. . . . He lost the kitchen first. It got buried beneath pots and pans and a suffocating mountain of carrier bags and boxes of Chinese takeout. . . ." Each player, life history compressed and sharp, could walk off with the show. These are indelible portraits of class, cultural, and racial conflicts in buttoned-up British society and among the immigrants themselves, and a biting capsule portrait of the psychiatry wars of the 1970s.
Born in Jamaica in 1978, Miller lives and teaches in the UK. In The Last Warner Woman, he uses a contemporary awareness of text as chameleon not to confound and to distance, but to join the reader in an inquiry filled with wry irony and compassionate insight. The book teaches you how to read it as you go. Kei Miller, and this strange and beautiful novel, deserve much recognition and wide readership.