Adamine Bustamante is born in one of Jamaica’s last leper colonies. When Adamine grows up, she discovers she has the gift of “warning”: the power to protect, inspire, and terrify. But when she is sent to live in England, her prophecies of impending disaster are met with a different kind of fear—people think she is insane and lock her away in a mental hospital.
Now an older woman, the spirited Adamine wants to tell her story. But she must wrestle for the truth with the mysterious “Mr. Writer Man,” who has a tale of his own to share, one that will cast Adamine’s life in an entirely new light. In a story about magic and migration, stories and storytelling, and the New and Old Worlds, we discover it is never one person who owns a story or has the right to tell it.
“[E]motionally absorbing . . . ”—O, The Oprah Magazine, Top Ten Titles To Pick Up Now
“Mysticism, magic, tragedy and second changes figure largely in Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman; heroine Adamine Bustamante is born with a magical skill in a Jamaican leper colony and moves to London, where her gift is not always welcomed.”—EBONY, Quick and Good Books Section
“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) . . . this is a splendid book and I hope my library has more of this author’s work.”—ANZ Litlovers
“Beautifully imaginative and structurally inventive. . . . Miller’s narrative alternates between Adamine’s first-person account, told in a colorful and soul-baring patois, and sections recounted, mostly in the third person, by Mr. Writer Man. The two viewpoints at times conflict in illuminating ways, but Mr. Writer Man’s reflections on truth, history and literature pale next to the plot’s more immediate concerns: spirituality, violence against women, and migration, to name a few.” —Publishers Weekly
“Images and Jamaican words dot Miller’s mesmerizing novel, which enthralls, even as it confronts its readers.” —The Star Tribune
“[T]his is about the inconsistencies between what we say, what we hear, and what we do with what we say and hear. In a tale that in other hands might have been confusing, Miller portrays intriguing characters with perfect pitch in both narrative nuance and Adamine’s colorful patter.”—Booklist
“Miller is a name to watch.” —The Independent (UK)
“Wonderfully weaving together realism and fantasy . . . [Miller] shows us that magic is inherent in humanity. . . . Perhaps Miller’s greatest feat is the incorporation of the decorous yet often unused second person; sparingly used, it draws in the audience and demonstrates the special relationship between Adamine and Mr. Writer Man as well as the relationship between Miller and his readers. This poetic and enchanting work will appeal to readers of Caribbean literature and literary fiction.”—Library Journal
“The Last Warner Woman features compelling settings, masterful storytellers, a mystery, colorful characters, and language that resonates with beauty.” —World Literature Today
“This is magical, lyrical, spellbinding writing.” —Granta
“The Last Warner Woman is a ‘splendocious’ story, told ‘crossways.’ . . . Miller, who is also a poet, circles around his truths, teases out just-right words to hint at elusive meanings, and ends the novel by acknowledging that in every book ‘the story within breathes its own breath.’ [W]onderfully evocative
“To enter the dream of this story is to get caught up in a wonderful web.”—NewPages
“The Last Warner Woman ranks as one of the best things I’ve read so far this year. It had drama, intrigue, characters to love, characters to hate.” —Insatiable Booksluts
“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. . . . 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.” —Baltimore City Paper
“This is a deceptive spellbinder, a metafiction so disguised as old-time storytelling that you can almost hear the crackle of home fire as it starts. But then it gets you with twists and turns, seduces and shocks you even as it wrestles with the very nature of storytelling itself. Like the best Jean Rhys novel it’s the story of women haunted by women, and of the dangers of both keeping secrets and saying too much.” —Marlon James
“Miller’s well-crafted prose and the originality of his subject make this an entirely gratifying novel. I didn’t want to stop reading: from the very first sentence I was fascinated and knew that I was in the hands of a gifted writer. In the finely portrayed characters of Pearline and Adamine and the vivid details of the rural setting Kei Miller illuminates and gives a voice to a neglected piece of Jamaican and, indeed, human history. This novel is a rare pearl, one that I will cherish and delight in for a long time.” —Margaret Cezair-Thompson
Once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica. If you wanted to get there today, you would have to find a man named Ernie McIntyre but who you would simply call Mr. Mac, by his own insistence and also the insistence of others, including his mother who knew him by no other name. Mr Mac was famous for his great big belly, so surprisingly big that the buttons on the one side of his shirt were permanently estranged from the holes they were supposed to be married to on the other; he also had a great big head, and a sprawling set of buttocks, all of which he could somehow manage to squeeze into the front seat of a Lada taxi, you in the passenger seat, and then make the wild jerky ascent up the red dirt road lined on each side with the broad green leaves of banana trees. When the car reaches the crest of the hill, Mr. Mac would stop, a welcome break, because if no one had warned you before about Mr. Mac’s driving, how he would press on the gas from the bottom of the hill and never ease off, not for any corner, not for any dip, not for any rock in the middle of the road, just gas gas gas all the way, the whole time giving you his own tour guide speech in a strange language which even if you could understand you would not hear because of the diesel engine; and if no one had warned you about all this and you had made the great mistake of having a full breakfast, then all that food would have churned up and you would be close to sick.
On the crest of the hill you would tumble out of the jeep, holding your stomach, while Mr. Mac excitedly points to something below.
He would say this word, mate, because maybe you are from England and he is trying to impress you.
“Dung deh suh it deh. Yu nuh see it? Dung deh suh! Look nuh! Den wha mek yu a hole on pon yu belly like seh birt pain a hit yu? Look. See de zinc roof dem pint up through de mist. Deh suh we a guh.”
You would not understand Mr. Mac completely but you would look to where he was pointing and some of the words would then come together and make a kind of sense, for indeed, down there in the valley there were zinc roofs pointing up through the mist. And that’s where you were going. Just as the Original Pearline Portious had back in 1941 while her mother was frozen under a guava tree. Pearline had stood on this same crest of a hilltop, except she had arrived by her own two feet. She had also looked down on the tin roofs and made the decision to walk down. This, despite her seventeen years of living in these mountains and never before having stepped foot on the trail. If she had continued to listen to the wise counsel of her family and friends and all those who lived in the mountains, she would not have made this journey, for they had said over and over that down there in the valley was a place of terrible sickness.
But it wasn’t curiosity that led Pearline Portious down the trail, unwittingly changing her life. That day she needed to sell a purple doily. The color purple was a strange choice for a doily. It was accepted on the island that anything designed to cover wooden surfaces—table cloths, crocheted mats or doilies—was supposed to be white. Pearline’s determination to crochet and knit in colors—pink, blue, red, green, purple—meant that not a single one of her creations were ever sold. The absolute failure of what was supposed to be an entrepreneurial endeavor did not upset Pearline. She considered herself an artist, and of the kind whose chief aim was to please herself. Every unsold item would then truly belong to her and she took great pleasure in finding a place for them in her room. It was a room which everyone in the village had toured and reluctantly admitted, despite still being convinced that each individual item was ugly, that the combination of them was something wonderful. They said it was as if the child lived inside a rainbow.
Pearline’s mother, of course, tried hard to dissuade her daughter from her useless and colorful habits. That very morning she had observed her daughter knitting the purple doily under a guava tree.
“Pearline girl, look on what you is doing nuh! It is just ugly. Nobody is going to buy something like that. You cannot afford to always be making things for yo own self.”
“Mama. I will get this one sold. I promise.”
“Eh! You can’t even look me in the eyes and say that. Girl, you is just wasting time. Who really is going to buy that from you? We even looking on the same thing? It is purple, girl. Purple. Who you ever see with a purple doily in them good, good house?”
“I say I will get it sold, Mama.”
“Saying you going to get it sold not going to get it sold, Pearline. You is only full of talk. Look at me, girl. Is high time you grow up. And don’t puff up yu face at me neither. I saying these things for yu own good. Me and yu father giving you money dat we never just pick up outa road easy suh. And we giving it to you only for you to make these—these purple pieces of stupidness that not going a damn place except inside yu room.”
Pearline’s ten fingers began trembling. They became useless, unable to continue the knitting which had happily occupied them before her mother’s arrival. She kept her eyes fixed to the ground, unable to look up. Her mother was also trembling in anger. She had not intended for this confrontation to become a thing so big, and yet she knew it had to become bigger still. Having embarked on this road, she knew she had to walk its full length. So she stepped out of her slippers and onto the earth so her daughter would understand that the next words out of her mouth were serious.
“Alright, girl. Alright. You say you is going to sell this one. Well fine. Go and sell it. And I swear to you I will stay here on this piece of ground until that happen. Come thunderstorm or sunhot I not moving. You hearing me, child? Jesus Son of Mary would have to come down off him cross to move me. Cause is like you take me for some kind of poppyshow.”
Pearline finally looked up, astonished. She knew that this threat was true, for mothers were always doing things like that. Her mama would stay right there. She would not go inside to sit or to cook or to sleep. She would not go to the farm ground to work. She would make the neighbors pass and see her as rooted as the tree she was standing under, and she would explain to them that it was her daughter that had made her into a poppyshow. She would stay there even for days until Pearline either sold the doily or came back and apologized saying Mama, you are right. It is time I grow up. So the Original Pearline Portious went off to the market, desperate to do what she had never been able to do before.
Reading Group Guide
1. Who do you feel is the book’s more reliable narrator, and why?
2. Is Adamine morally culpable for abandoning the leprosy patients?
3. Is Ada sane? If so, how do we explain her bouts of amnesia in the mental hospital? If not, at what point does her insanity begin, and does something specific cause its manifestation?
4. What is the role of religion in the novel? How would you describe Ada’s relationship with spirituality?
5. What is the role of women in the novel, and to what extent does Ada conform to or defy this mold?
6. Is madness universally or culturally defined? Was Ada sane in Jamaica but crazy in England? Or did one of the two get it wrong?
7. There is an undercurrent of male domination, rape, and abuse in the novel, beginning in its very first chapter and persisting to the end with Adamine’s own rape. To what extent are men portrayed as villains, and to what extent is this behavior considered a cultural norm in Jamaica?
8. Most of Ada’s friendships are short-lived. How would you define Ada’s relationship with other women?
9. Why does Adamine, a respected and powerful individual, feel there is “nothing for her” in Jamaica?
10. The power of the mind is a recurring theme in the novel, beginning with Mother Lazarus’s story. What is Adamine’s relationship with her own “power of mind?”