26 June 2012

Book Review: The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller

I met Kei Miller in January of this year at Winter Institute down in New Orleans, where we chatted awhile about Caribbean literature.  I wish I had been bright enough at the time to remember that he had written The Same Earth, a book I have at home on my bedside table, but alas, no.  He signed an ARC of The Last Warner Woman for me and I've been saving it to read on my trip ever since.

"Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica." Thus begins this dual-narrative story of Adamine Bustamante, a girl born under mystical circumstances in said leper colony, who grows into her religious "gift of warning." It is the story of her childhood in Jamaica; her years in the Revivalists, a group believed to have the power of prophecy and resurrection; and lastly, her years locked up in an asylum in England, where it's more convenient for the government (and her husband) to take her religious fervor for madness.

The story of Adamine's life is a sad one, to be sure, but it's tempered so well with moments of humor that it's sometimes easy to forget you're reading a life of hardship.  But the main distinguishing feature of this novel, I'd say, is the narrative structure.  There are two ostensible narrators here: Adamine Bustamante in a fragmented, tell-it-to-the-reader-direct way, and the "character" of the writer himself, who both addresses the reader and reverts to a third person telling of Adamine's history.  Only occasionally do these two narratives corroborate each other; most of the time they are like the double helix of the DNA structure, looping out away from each other before crossing back in on each other, and then looping out again. 

I thought it was a fascinating structure, and while it's true that it leads to certain points of plot repetition, it's the changes in the small details between one narrator and the other that provides the richness of the text. I think, ultimately, that Kei Miller has given the reader a compelling story of a completely disenfranchised woman with successful meditations on meta-fiction, and anybody with an interest in fascinating characters, Jamaican literature, the roots of institutionalized racism (pun intended), or inventive narrative structure should give this book a spin.

NB: This book was published in the UK last year and in the US this April by Coffee House Press.  I received an ARC for attending Winter Institute.


  1. I welcome new tips in the Caribbean lit genre..keep em coming..regretfully my library does not stock this..will call a few local book stores. Any other summer reading tips Emily ?

  2. This sounds reall thought provoking...I enjoy reading about the early history of institutionalism...the history makes it completely understanding why it is so difficult to have someone institutionalized today. Really interesting info :)


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