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Storytelling in a Jamaican slum  

by
25 November 2016

Alexander Lucie-Smith enjoys magical realism and a glimpse into Rastafarian beliefs

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Augustown
Kei Miller
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £12.99
(978-1-474-60359-1)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

 

AUGUSTOWN is a brilliant and magical book. Set in a slum district of Kingston, Jamaica, it is the story of a Rastafarian woman, Ma Taffy, and her extended family. Sensing impending doom hanging over the place, Ma Taffy tries to ward this off with the tale of the flying “preacher­man”, which she remembers from her youth. But nothing can block the march of fate, and one tragic mistake, made by Mr Saint-Josephs, a tortured schoolmaster, is enough to set off a chain reaction that leads to appalling tragedy.

Miller makes great use of the patois of Jamaica, which means that the conversations zing with life; and he also draws on the religious beliefs of the Rastafarians, which open up a new and unfamiliar metaphysical world. This dovetails cleverly with various well-judged excursions into the world of magical realism.

Moreover, the author makes skilful and daring use of plot-shifts and time-changes to keep readers on their toes. One is never quite sure what is going to happen next, with­out ever feeling confused, and it is this dangerous sense that anything might happen which gives the novel both its charm and its sense of menace.

Augustown really exists, and is supposed to be named after “August morning”, the occasion, on 1 August 1838, when the slaves in the British Empire were finally set free. The promise of that morning has not been fulfilled, and Jamaica, as this novel tells us, is still divided between rich and poor along lines of race.

There is a great deal of unob­trusive social commentary in these pages, which adds to the depth of the narrative. The people of Augustown live in hope, just as their ancestors must have done, but it is a hope, this excellent novel shows, that is constantly deferred.

 

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.

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