'The Last Warner Woman" is a "splendocious" story, told "crossways." Jamaican-Scots author Kei Miller's second novel about a Jamaican woman who "warns" -- that is, foretells the future -- is a rich stew of Caribbean patois, folkways, religion, prophecy, magic and mesmerizing, circuitous, self-conscious storytelling. 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."
Miller's titular character, Adamine Bustamante, is born in a leper colony on March 18, 1942, to Pearline Portious, maker of colorful doilies that serve as bandages to wrap the sores and raise the spirits of the four inhabitants of No. 35 Queen Margaret Drive in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Pearline, who is not afflicted with leprosy, dies in childbirth, and Adamine grows up never knowing her mother or who fathered her. Under the tutelage of Mother Lazarus, an ancient black woman who tends the hospice, she is groomed to take charge of the small compound one day.
But when she's 15, a spirit-voice compels Adamine to leave the lepers. She joins a group of Revivalists in St. Catherine, where she learns her calling: "how to make God's voice my own." Spinning and shouting her "warrants," Adamine "saw and she saw and she couldn't stop seeing." It's a gift and a curse to "always know what is on the other side of Now, to always hear the future coming on its unstoppable hooves." It isn't her fate to remain in Jamaica. She journeys to England, guided by internal voices, and, wearing her red turban, warns people there -- who mostly don't want to hear -- of earthquakes, floods, storms and hurricanes.
Miller reels out the twists and turns of Adamine's life both in her voice and in the voice of "Mr. Writer Man," who has his own reasons for interviewing her, transcribing her story, and, sometimes to her dismay, changing its particulars. Both "Mr. Writer Man" and Adamine comment throughout the novel about how unruly a story can be, beginning in one place, which turns out not to be a beginning at all, but a middle, or even its end, and ending in a place that looks very much like the start. Rather than becoming a metafictional distraction, this skein of Miller's tale enhances the work, providing a chorus-like dimension.
Wonderfully evocative images and Jamaican words dot Miller's mesmerizing novel, which enthralls, even as it confronts its readers, issuing a warning on its final page: "Do you see what is coming toward you?"
Kathryn Lang, former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas, is a freelance editor and reviewer.