The Last Warner Woman
Reviewed by Nathan Huffstutter
Part One: in which the story begins
Before the first before, The Last Warner Woman is a novel born of a vision: a cold public square in industrial England, every head turned toward a lone, headdress-crowned Caribbean chanting down the heavens—"Flood! Hurican! Eart'Quake!" The disturbance is sufficient to summon the authorities, provoking Kei Miller to pose a pair of questions: first, how did this Obeah Cassandra (the Warner Woman) come to be so very far from home, and second, with West Indians occupying a bloated percentage of the UK's involuntarily institutionalized, is it the case that these islanders are indeed "mad as a shad," or is it possible they're possessed of truths that elude European understanding?
That singular vision, however, is not the beginning of the tale. The story of Adamine Bustamante, the titular Warner Woman, begins "Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica," the yarn stretching back long before Ada was conceived, tracing the series of odd turns that led Ada's mother from her hobby of knitting doilies to a job stitching bandages for a quartet of lepers. This hospice isn't even where the story truly begins, for before there can be story there must first be storyteller and audience, a voice to speak and ears to hear, and to encapsulate those, perhaps the most suitable beginning can be found prior to The Last Warner Woman in Kei Miller's reading of his own "Speaking In Tongues," the unrushed enunciation and twinkling lilt at once earnest and goosing the poem's Pentecostal matter:
I remember my grandmother unbecoming
the kind of woman who sets her table each Sunday,
who walks up from the river, water balanced easily
on her head. My grandmother became instead,
all earthquake—tilt and twirl and spin
As both poet and storyteller, Miller has established a lively eye for duality: worship versus possession, rural Jamaica versus urban U.K., street smarts versus formal education, the Other versus the dominant culture. Unsurprisingly, The Last Warner Woman begins with a pair of voices butting heads: the gilded "once-upon-a-times" of Adamine's story belong to Mr. Writer Man, a meddling narrator of the oral tradition, and lest "you," the directly-addressed reader, fall sway to his fabrications and hyperbole, Mr. Writer Man's snaking third-person voice is stalked by a mongoose first, with Adamine interjecting her own narration to contradict his version of events: "Sometimes this Writer Man will take five different stories and make it into one. Sometimes the things he put down not untrue, but they never happen in that order."
Though born of the prophetic vision in that frigid English square, The Last Warner Woman gradually becomes less the story of Adamine Bustamante and more the story of a novel finding its way onto the page, a meta-fiction where every step forward requires three steps: Mr. Writer Man's telling, Ada's refutation, and then Ada's "true" account. And should "you" the reader doubt it's possible to get anywhere in this crosswise fashion, a title page outlines the novel's four-part structure, beginning with Part One, in which the story begins, and proceeding next to...
Part Two: in which the story prepares to travel, and then begins anew
It is not Ada who prepares to travel but "the story": the prime mover of The Last Warner Woman is very much the creation of narrative. Before the story (and Ada) changes shores, Ada's mother dies in childbirth, leaving her to be raised by an ancient caregiver at the leper colony. Once upon a time there was almost certainly a biological father, but few promising candidates reveal themselves, and dead women tell no tales. When the time comes for Ada's 100 year-old surrogate (grand)mother to pass on and leave the lepers in her care, Ada flees the colony, condemning the residents to the fate of all abandoned narrative threads—death by neglect. The still-teenaged Ada quickly falls in with a Revivalist preacher, Captain Lucas, a machete-wielding Duppy Conqueror who steers Ada to her calling as Warner Woman, the headdress-wearing seer who heeds the whispers of Papa Legba and hollers doom before it strikes.
Since Ada lacks any defined wants or needs of her own, and a proper storyteller knows that narrative starves without conflict, in Part Two Miller takes his opposing voices and situates them in the same room. Mr. Writer Man is personified as an olive-skinned, curly-haired scribe who invites the now-elderly Ada into his comfortable English home, promising she'll be allowed to tell her own story in her own words. He with a cup of coffee, she with a cup of green tea, a tape recorder running between them. By this time Ada has spent most of her adult life in England, years marked by institutionalizations and electro-shock treatments, rendering her recollection . . . suspect. And though Mr. Writer Man appears to have made his offer in good faith, the discourse in Part One has shown exactly what will be made of Ada's memories.
Complicating matters, while Mr. Writer Man is out of the house, Ada slips into his study and thumbs through the pages he has set down. She is not pleased: "Why now that I is here, in your house, telling you how it really happened, you have started to change up my words as if it was ever your story to change? And why the hell did you come looking for me in the first place?"
Part Three: in which others bear witness to the story
As Mr. Writer Man's struggle to compose the text becomes the principal story, in order to pave the way for "other" voices to bear witness, the author ultimately writes himself onto the page as a second first-person "I":"But dear reader—if I may address you so directly—there is something that happens when the writer begins to reveal himself. When he suddenly declares himself as "I." It compels him, quite frankly, toward honesty."
This, dear reader, is complete horseshit, and I'm quite comfortable making that indelicate assertion since Kei Miller would almost certainly concur. The embrace of meta-fiction is hardly virgin territory: in his debut collection of short stories, The Fear of Stones, both the title story and "Love in the Time of Fat" are told by interventionist authors, meddling I's, and neither of these speakers should be taken as true reflections of the living, breathing Kei Miller, nor should these voices be regarded as irreproachably honest or frank.
And yet, despite my thorough distrust of these unreliable narrators, here I am, flipping back through The Last Warner Woman, locating the chapter titled "The Middle of the Story" (found toward the end of Part Two, well past the novel's physical middle):
Every book must begin somewhere, but it begins in different places for different people. If you are the reader, then things get going at Chapter One, the first sentence—Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica. But for the writer, the book would have begun somewhere else altogether.
Within this Middle of the Story, Miller reproduces police reports and commitment papers pursuant to Ada's cataclysmic warning in England, a seemingly bizarre use of official forms in a work so conscious of its own artifice. And yet I find myself acting upon the specific information in these records, flipping back through the novel, searching for a critical piece that seems to have eluded me: evidence that in the aftermath of Ada's public prophecy there was in fact some corresponding disaster. I find myself taking the date specified, November 14, 1972, and running both day and month through multiple search engines, seeking out some significant event, some historical clue that conforms or connects to this work of crafted fiction. I find myself rereading Part Three, during which Mr. Writer Man interrogates other parties named in the documents, an ex-husband, a nurse practitioner, a hospital administrator, and because there always comes a before, before these "others" bears witness they each provide their own digressive backstory (or, what at this late stage may be considered "fat").
Was Ada's raving the maelstrom of an irrational mind, or was she possessed of a genuine foresight? Back when I was nothing more than a byline, Reviewed by Nathan Huffstutter, I was bound by an ethical commitment, I had a responsibility to leave no stone unturned in answering questions and offering a decisive critical account.
But now that I'm here as an "I"? Honestly, all I have to do now is swear that I looked.
Part Four: in which the story invents parables, and speaks a benediction and then ends
Jesus spoke in parables, allegories that delivered his message more soundly than any straight sermon, and following His lead Ada spins several parables of her own: among these, the story of a chicken who borrows plumage from numerous breeds of flying bird, hawks and doves and eagles and crows, and "when him done him did look like one big poppyshow. He don't look like any bird at all. But the chicken was proud, and him spread him wings and set to take off."
Chickens, however, cannot fly.
So, rather than allow him to take wing and soar, all those collected feathers flap to the ground and scatter, leaving the poor chicken with nothing, as none of those feathers truly belonged to him in the first place.
This is, perhaps, the novel's truest admission.
For all of its meta-chicanery, The Last Warner Woman appears the work of an author trying to prove he knows how to do a thing he's not completely sure he knows how to do—though he is certain there's resolution in the end. There's more at stake than merely bringing Adamine's story to a conclusion, as within the multiplicity of voices in The Last Warner Woman, Miller unites conflicting aspects of tone and country. Miller's two prior works of fiction represent nearly opposite extremes: the stories in The Fear of Stones deliver a bloody mouthful, sketching the ferociously masculine Jamaica of Capleton and Buju Banton, while his debut novel, The Same Earth, is pitched with book-club whimsy, its series of linked vignettes offering a return to the sun-kissed rock-steady of Alton Ellis and The Heptones. Intermingling the former's hostility, the latter's nostalgia, and all the vagaries between, The Last Warner Woman looks homeward for answers to its two precipating questions.
How did Ada come to be so far from the island? That's a long story. Or, a short one—depending.
And what might motivate a hospital administrator to diagnose Ada's mental condition as "Of West Indian origin"? That, too, is another long story. In Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Ishmael Reed traces the Loas back to Isis and Osiris, animating ancient spirits that his "HooDoo Detective" Papa Labas can placate and enjoin. Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! honors the ancestral dignity of women persecuted for their brand of faith, women who are locked up, shaved bald, and doused with cold water to prevent them from sprouting wings of flame. Toeing the line between skepticism and reverence, Miller sketches a broader version of Obeah, from Captain Lucas muttering spells in his necklace of chained padlocks to Adamine warding off spirits by madly snipping scissors in the air. In Jamaica, Ada earns a degree of local renown for warning of a tragic school bus crash, but she herself takes pains to undercut the mysticism of that vision, pointing out that the combination of a stumbling drunk bus driver and his busload of horribly rowdy children made for an entirely predictable outcome.
Returning to the heritage of "Speaking In Tongues," in that work the poet reveals himself as a spectator to worship, always on the outskirts and remaining awed by those who give themselves with complete abandon.
years later a friend tells me
tongues is nothing but gibberish—the deluded
pulling words out of dust. I want to ask him
what is language but a sound we christen?
What the author sees is not the Lord communicating through the faithful, but the faithful experimenting with sound and hoping to find a language God will understand. Before there can be story, first there must be a voice to speak and ears to hear—and in the end, the meaning is there.