Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2014

The Last Warner Woman, by Kei Miller

7819304One day, when they’re not too busy, I’m going to ask the librarians at my library how they choose new books… I’m intrigued to know how they came across this one.  As far as I know it hasn’t won any prizes and I don’t remember seeing it reviewed anywhere.  But it’s certainly a lucky find!

The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller was one of those books that I stumbled on at the library when I was there to pick up something else.  It was face out on the shelves, and I was attracted by the cover art by Delphine Lebourgeois.  The author’s first name made me pick it up because I was curious about what culture the name came from, and when I read the blurb, it seemed to me that I hadn’t read any books set in Jamaica, and so I took it home.  (Actually, I had, I’d read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I’d forgotten that).

The Last Warner Woman features not one, but two unreliable narrators.  Adamine Bustamante grew up in one of Jamaica’s last leper colonies.  Her mother, who died in childbirth, had worked there, and Adamine was brought up by old Mother Lazarus.   In adolescence, she abandons the lepers and joins a Revivalist congregation where she discovers that she has the gift of prophecy: she is a ‘warner woman’ with the power to foretell impending disasters.  But the Revivalist pastor has plans for her and sends her off to England where before long her odd behaviour is diagnosed as madness and she is locked away in an asylum.  This book – like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – interrogates the idea of ‘normality’, but Miller also expects his readers to consider how what seems downright peculiar in one culture (England) is quite normal in another (Jamaica).

The beginning of this story is told in a linear third-person narrative, but it’s interrupted by the distinctive voice of Adamine herself, telling us that her tale is being hijacked by ‘Mr Writer Man’ who has got it wrong.  There are things he doesn’t know, there is much he doesn’t understand, and anyway, it’s not his story to tell.  And so – in creole – unfolds Adamine’s intimate first-person narrative.  Each part of her interpretation of events is prefaced by a blank page headed only by the words ‘an instalment of a testimony spoken to the wind’ and a footer on the right hand side commanding Shhhhhhhhh.

Much of what Adamine tells us has the ring of truth; her story is particularly vivid when she relates in such matter-of-fact detail how women like her are exploited and abused, all the more chilling because it is portrayed as just how things are.   As one of the characters says, the power imbalance in institutions of whatever kind often attract a certain sort of person who wants to exploit the vulnerable, and there have been too many stories about staff getting away with the physical and sexual abuse of inmates whose testimony isn’t deemed reliable enough for court convictions.  I was surprised that one of the characters labelled de-institutionalisation as a penny-pinching exercise by conservative governments and disparaged the campaigns for better mental health care, describing the protestors as

a mob marching on Downing Street, a loud rabble of the sane and the not-so-sane, a large, riotous group mumbling, muttering, chanting and waving placards, PSYCHIATRY KILLS, LOVE IS BETTER THAN SHOCK! It made for good TV and sensational headlines.

Sylvia recognised the sentiment that was growing.  It was a passion that was essential to every crusade – the passion of a people who had finally found something to believe in, to fight for, and in doing so invest their lives with worth.  Their worthiness was directly proportional to the worthlessness of what they were fighting for. (p.183)

IMO group homes in the local community with statutory visiting schemes to ensure that all is as it should be, are much safer places than large, closed institutions.  That there are not enough of these group homes is a separate issue.

However, in order to grant Adamine her sanity and believe her competing version of the story, the reader has to acquiesce in the validity of prophecy.  In this book this ‘gift’ is inextricably linked to religion and we are all used to paying respect to religion even if we do not believe in any god ourselves.  Adamine reminds the reader of the peculiar beliefs that litter Christian religions and reminds us that these odd beliefs (transubstantiation, ascension, virgin births and so on) have been acceptable in English civilisation for centuries; she would like the same respect paid to her spiritual beliefs (which made her a respected woman in Jamaica).  What made me uneasy about The Last Warner Woman was the implication that it is somehow discriminatory for a reader to suspect that Adamine is indeed suffering from delusions, because I don’t quite buy the argument that any kind of behaviour must be respected if it derives from spiritual or cultural beliefs.  (After all, it’s equally likely that the ‘visions’ of the Christian saints and martyrs would be treated as hallucinations today).   What muddies the water in this novel is the chronology which makes the consequences of such a diagnosis more dire: Adamine’s incarceration takes place decades ago.

Despite these reservations, I enjoyed unravelling the threads of this story.  Adamine  wants to be able to tell her story in her own way.

Maybe sometimes you have to tell a story crossways, because to tell it straight would ongly mean that it go straight by the person’s ears who it intend for. For consider the words of Jesus: when the blessed Saviour go up on the mountain him did decide to speak in parables.  he never just tell them that all of them was heathens, and that not a one of them could reach Heaven without him.  Instead he talk bout hard ground and soft ground and ground that was full of macka and thorns, and how the seeds would grow according to what ground them did fall on; he talk bout the old woman who lose her coin and then find it again; him talk bout a lost sheep who finally make him way home.  And maybe it is afterwards, when you gather all of these crossway stories, and you put them together, that you finally see a line had been running through all of them.  Sometimes you have to tell a story the way you dream a dream, and everyone know that dreams don’t walk straight.

Shhhhhhhhh  (p. 222)

Miller retains control of what could have been a confusing narrative with the more coherent contributions of The Writer Man and the other characters he interviews in his quest for the truth.  Adamine is quite right that The Writer Man has an agenda of his own, but it would be churlish to spoil the story by saying much more than that.  Suffice to say that this is a splendid book and I hope my library has more of this author’s work!

Author: Kei Miller
Title: The Last Warner Woman
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010,
ISBN 9780297860778
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: The Last Warner Woman


Responses

  1. It’s one of the best things about libraries: you can pick up, at no risk to your wallet, a totally random book based on almost nothing at all, and you might discover your new favourite author. I love libraries (and I just checked my library’s online catalogue – another thing I love – and they don’t have this but do have another Kei Miller).

    • Jane, you can get this one through Z-portal, see https://llv.net.au/zportal/zengine?VDXaction=ZSearchSimple

      • I agree with Jane. Love, love, love libraries.

        • Hi Karenlee, maybe we should start a library lovers association, ready to spring into action should penny-pinching politicians start closing them the way they have in the US and UK!

          • Oh Noooo! Closing libraries is like killing opportunities for future readers and writers. When I was interviewed for a local paper on the subject of libraries a couple of years ago, I pointed out that books were luxuries when I was young (living in a relative poor farming district) and the library was my idea of heaven. To quote myself (is that allowed?):'[libraries] epitomise a classless Australia which doesn’t dictate who can become well-read and learned…’
            I think I will research what’s been happening in the US and the UK.

            • No argument from me. In the days before secondary education in Australia, many working class people educated themselves towards a better life through the Mechanics Institute Libraries and municipal libraries today are providing the same opportunities. They are an integral part of the education system, as valuable now as ever they were.

  2. How fascinating – I just love that cover! I’ve never heard of this author, but that’s one of joys of browsing through the library shelves as they often contain hidden gems.

    • Hello Jacqui!
      There is no better place for serendipity than the local library:)

  3. Hi Lisa – sounds like an interesting read. What did you think of the Adamine character refering to the Writer Man? Did it bring you out of the story or was it smooth and felt like it fit well?

    • Hi Julie, I thought it was an effective technique to ensure clarity, but more importantly it conveyed the sense of anger at being appropriated, you know, the way a journalist will intrude into a personal tragedy because they want a story, and you are the story and you are so aware that they care not a shred about you in your tragedy, you are only a story.
      Now as it turns out, she’s wrong about that, but it would be a spoiler to say more, and the really impressive thing about this author is way he has so carefully constructed the work so that The Writer Man’s agenda emerges naturally as the pages turn.

      • Sounds fascinating – the structure and the story

  4. I love this one. I got it on my birthday and it’s been an amazing read.

    • How lucky you are! It’s been years since anybody gave me a nice book for a gift: I suppose they think I’ve already got everything I want. (But of course they are wrong!)


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