Kei Miller: The Last Warner Woman
The fictional tale of a Jamaican Cassandra impresses on many levels
Published: May 2, 2012
The Last Warner Woman
Coffee House Press, hardcover
The life of a Warner Woman, the subject of The Last Warner Woman , Kei Miller’s second novel, is a harrowing one. Should the Almighty deem it necessary to broadcast a message to the people of Earth, Warners become the loudspeakers, their lungs, vocal cords, and tongues blasting said message for all to hear. Their screams demand repentance, foretelling disaster and doom, which, not surprisingly, makes the rest of society ill at ease. Warners garner both respect and terror, existing on the outskirts of the community. Such is the role that Adamine Bustamante accepts, and she finds she’s one of the strongest divine messengers in history.
Born in a Jamaican leper colony, Adamine dwells with death from the start; her own mother perishes during childbirth, and she assumes the job of caretaker at the colony without much say in the matter. At 15, she sets out on her own path, landing among religious “Revivalists,” who ultimately teach her the art of warning. But circumstances also takes her across the ocean to England, and, finally, to a mental asylum where her messages from on high are written off as psychotic babble. In the facility she faces abuse at the hands of the staff, pushing her into actual insanity. Her memory locked up tight, she keeps reality at bay, as the pain of the past has the power to swallow her whole.
Decades later, Mr. Writer Man (as Adamine calls him) steps in to share her story with the world. Using subtle clues to her past—an old photograph, paintings, bits of paper—the writer slowly chips away at Adamine’s defenses to get her story.
Miller, who is himself Jamaican, explores many shades of storytelling by using several different voices. The nameless Writer Man transforms Adamine’s reality into a creature all its own, complete with romance, stunning imagery, and miracles. But Adamine, in her own voice, relates to the reader the events as she sees them as well, proving that one truth can be told in many ways. Sometimes she speaks plainly; at others she tells her biography “crossways,” using parables to share her heartache, her hopes, her mistakes.
By diving headlong into her world, Mr. Writer Man encounters others who have known and experienced Adamine’s tragedy alongside her, enriching the narrative with their own points of view. He uncovers documents pertaining to her hospitalization, tracks down her neglectful husband who opted to commit her instead of divorce her, and interviews the nurses who looked after her during her years at the asylum. And well past the halfway point in the novel, the mysterious man at the helm reveals something about himself that suddenly changes one’s interpretation of his findings.
Miller handles these various narrators with finesse by maintaining a firm grasp on their voices; he knows his characters well, and like a Warner, their messages boom forth clearly. Through telling and retelling, the book breezes along, strengthened by each perspective. And magically, despite the repetition and the misery and hardship within, you’re compelled to stand beside the characters throughout because each voice is real and present, each take honest in its own way.
If there’s anything frustrating about The Last Warner Woman, it is that it ends too soon. The reader is dropped swiftly into the story, and the novel ends just as quickly, pulling the cord on a drama so rich it could easily continue. Instead, it wraps up mere pages after an enormous revelation, sparking what feels like the seed of another novel. But alas, it seems that with Warner Women this approach is the norm: Sagas blast out to those who will listen, and once the message is delivered, silence.
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