Augustown by Kei Miller
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Kei Miller’s Augustown is a rhapsodic new force in the canon of Caribbean literature. Synthesizing generations of local lore, Miller tells the spellbinding story of a small Jamaican community’s search for faith and their struggle for spiritual affirmation.
“Look,” the narrator says in a dizzying, uncomfortably direct passage, “this isn’t magical realism. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. No. You don’t get off that easy. This is a story about people as real as you are…You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question; not whether you believe this story or not, but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.”
Augustown is split into two timelines. In 1982, when the streets teem with gang violence between Augustown and the neighboring Babylon, the blind and elderly Ma Taffy’s grandson comes home from school with a shaved head. In a devastating turn, Kaia’s teacher took a pair of scissors to his hair in an effort to “tidy” his classroom: “it don’t even look to me like he come to school to learn,” Mr. Saint-Josephs says, defending himself, “It look to me like he come to school to sell brooms.” The awfulness of his actions are even worse considering Kaia’s a young Rastafarian: the Nazarite vow “no blade shall ever touch my head” echoes throughout the book and imbues what was already an awful event with a quietly apocalyptic undertone.
To console and make sense of what’s happening to Kaia, Ma Taffy relates a story about when she was a girl. “I ever tell you bout the flying preacherman?” she asks. Alexander Bedward spoke of flying in his sermons as if everyone could do it; that people just needed to find a way out from under the weight of the world. Ma Taffy tells of theatrical days in church with heavy chains, symbolically preventing Bedward from floating endlessly into the stratosphere. Her story is told with such vivid conviction that its truth is never put into question; taken either literally or metaphorically, there was a time in Augustown of great passion and belief, a beautiful time of hope rooted in inklings of spiritual independence, free from “the stone that poor people like us born with…that sit right on top of our heads. The one that always stop we from rising.” Bedward prophesied that “a low-born blackman is going to rise up over Babylon,” but the local authorities try to step in, uncomfortable with a preacher amassing that sort of power and communal adoration.
At present, it’s chilling to read as Ma Taffy reaches out for Kaia’s head, as she always does, only to find a layer of stubble where his dreads once proudly grew. “Upon touching it, her hand grows cold and begins to tremble. She withdraws it. It is in this way — the touching of Kaia’s head — that Ma Taffy is ushered fully and violently back into the present.” The weight of this teacher’s actions slowly boil as Kaia’s mother seeks retribution: her family and community has endured this kind of oppressive behavior for too long. Miller weaves these two threads with a brilliantly rising tension, pushing towards a cathartic conclusion that will leave readers feeling weightless in awe.
By placing Ma Taffy at the center of the novel, Miller deftly limits his ability to show the Jamaican lifestyle: his work transcends traditional storytelling and floats into the realm of memories and abstract feeling, of inward senses like smell and sound. With wafts of jackfruit and callaloo in the air, Miller teaches readers how to feel Jamaica: he finds and shares the essence of life out there, rooted in its history and community.
But the success of Augustown is not simply in its multi-sensory storytelling but due largely to Miller’s kaleidoscopic characterization of the local community. Even with two prevalent arcs, Miller finds a way to devote chapters to the principal of Kaia’s school, the school’s janitor, the old Governor from Bedward’s time, and more. The stories of Bedward and Kaia layer beautifully upon one another and imply a broad sadness, particularly when considering how each thread could reasonably happen in the other’s timeline despite being generations apart. Miller’s vision of Jamaica is a vibrant but ultimately tragic one: he brilliantly shows a community’s potential for flight and their yearning for spiritual weightlessness.