Kei Miller’s second novel, The Last Warner Woman (published in 2010 but released in the United States earlier this year) seems to strike up a dialogue with his first novel The Same Earth (2008), while dismantling the earlier novel’s assumptions on the nature of truth and reality as they are treated in fiction.
Both novels are built around a similar story pattern, involving a woman who leaves her native Jamaica, travels to Great Britain, and returns home or (re)discovers a kind of home. However, each novel goes about telling this story in very different ways.
The Same Earth is told by an omniscient narrator, the kind most readily associated with the realist novel of Europe, though not as intrusive. Aside from the rare conversational direct address to the reader (“If you had asked him, he would have said…”), the storyteller remains removed, confidently narrating the thoughts, words, and deeds of a dizzying array of characters—residents of the fictional Watersgate, a village by the river. The novel’s strategy is to circle teasingly around a pair of near-apocalyptic events that befall the village, the first involving water, the second fire. It closes in on these events, then widens to approach it through another set of characters, and so on until the novel attains its inevitable climax.
The narrator demonstrates a classic authoritativeness and wit from the opening paragraphs of the novel, in which he lays out definitive facts as a matter of course, reveals information the characters are not privy to, and reassures us of his or her trustworthiness:
Imelda Agnes Richardson learned something important on the morning of 29 September 1983; she found out things could change overnight. On that morning she walked out of Watersgate, a single suitcase dragging behind her; in it all the clothes and bed things she could manage to rescue. She could not have known that her favourite piece of clothing, a bright red cardigan bought in England and never worn in Jamaica, was even then ruining all the other damp clothes surrounding it, its dye spreading generously to all corners of the suitcase so that for months afterwards Imelda would be forced to wear the colour red like some kind of Revivalist Mother warding off ghosts and duppies.
The narrator also makes confident references to details that he assumes his reader would know without explanation—the village Watersgate, Revivalist Mothers, and duppies. These gestures to a supposedly shared pool of knowledge already seem like parts of a tactic to subvert the sort of English realist novel it is emulating.
On the other hand, The Last Warner Woman begins with “Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica,” evoking the decidedly non-realist fairy tale and calling its own veracity into question. It then proceeds in subjunctive mood, addressing its readers and describing a hypothetical search for the said leper colony. While it shifts to more definitive statements of narrative fact later in the first chapter, the effect of this opening is to undermine the narrator’s confident tone, thereby preparing us for the more radical shift to come.
The second chapter is told by another narrator, one more intrusive and intimate, more colloquial in her speech, though no less authoritative. This narrator wishes to speak to us directly, without the benefit of a mediating writer, and she proceeds to debunk the story told in the preceding section.
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, sitting down, comfortable as you please, 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—the snake from the garden—twisting, coiling, bending this way and that. But hear me now, if his words is a snake, then mine is a mongoose chasing after him, a terror of teeth that him will be scared of. I going to set the record right. I going to unbend the truth. So listen close.
The rest of the novel proceeds this way, alternating between the conventional narration of “Mr. Writer Man” and the objections and emendations of Adamine Bustamante, whose story Mr. Writer Man is trying to tell. This arrangement occurs because Adamine is living in Mr. Writer Man’s flat, where he interviews her about her life and writes it down. While he sleeps or is away, she reads his fresh drafts and utters her “testimony spoken to the wind” in installments. There is a penultimate section in which testimonies of other characters continue her story and fill in narrative gaps, As I Lay Dying style, but by the end of the novel, Adamine has taken over, reclaiming her story and riffing on it (telling it crossways, she says), as a way of making it clearer. Along the way there is a colorful panorama of Jamaican life (though not quite as colorful as that depicted in The Same Earth) and a crucial revelation that finally nullifies any claim the narrative has to objectivity.
Deconstructing the conventions of narrative this way, The Last Warner Woman asserts that veracity, or even its illusion, as well as the distinction between “fiction” and “nonfiction,” is hardly the point of storytelling. Rather, it is that stories issue a warning to their readers or listeners: “Do you see what is coming towards you? Can you see over your shoulders?” go the closing lines of the novel. Warner women are oracles and healers, though when transplanted to other countries, they are branded as witches, or insane, as Adamine is. The utterance, the warning, remains the same, though it may be treated as truth in one culture and mad ravings in another.
Thus, on another level, the novel also critiques the cult of magical realism, in which this literary label is applied easily to depictions of non-European/North American societies and cultures, even in the absence of the genuinely magical or supernatural, as though “reality” was confined to the supposedly scientific, logical, modern worlds of Europe and North America. Although magical realism has become a truly international mode of writing, finding its way into yes, even Europe and North America, it is still too strongly associated with “primitive” third world cultures, in which the baseline normality is perceived as strange and therefore unreal by the first world.
This tension is also played out in the language of both novels, which are told in combinations of grammatically and syntactically flawless English and Jamaican patois. In The Same Earth, patois is confined to characters’ directly quoted speech, or when the narration slips into free indirect discourse. The omniscient narrator reports the goings-on in Her Majesty’s English, the way Jane Austen’s or Thomas Hardy’s narrators do, and with as much authority and irony, although this narrator is not above shifting into incantatory, musical rhythms when the story demands it.
On the other hand, roughly half of The Last Warner Woman is given over to the warner woman herself, Adamine, who speaks in patois. On the whole, her version of the events is more rational and sensible than Mr. Writer Man’s second-hand account, but because Mr. Writer Man speaks in conventional English, Adamine, with her diction, rambling, and hallucinatory digressions, is relegated to the role of unreliable narrator, even as she fights this label and tries to assert her version of things. In the end, she proves more reliable that Mr. Writer Man, who withholds crucial information. Interestingly, he also shifts into hallucinatory mode at the novel’s midpoint, when Adamine first discovers her power of prophecy:
The cry of the Warner Woman is Storm & Hurricane & Flood! You may imagine her rising from the ocean floor, her naked body encrusted in barnacles. And now she is standing on water; the white froth of the waves is obedient to her and follows subtle instruction from her toes.
In these two novels, one can sense a writer carefully working through the problems posed by the novel as a form, and by the conventions of narrative as filtered through issues of identity. The exploration of these questions ensures that the novel continues to evolve as it is taken further away from the cultures in which it originated. That this critical labor is kept at the service of storytelling is an olive branch extended to readers, to whom it ought to matter less whether or not a story is true than that it is well-told, and that it warns us. “Warrant, the book always does.”