I am currently in that temporary space that I sometimes occupy having just finished a book that has captured my imagination for days or weeks, depending on how long it has taken me to read it. The book is finished but I am still inhabiting its world, unwilling or unable to let its time, its place, its people go. This time the book that I have finished but have not yet left is Kei Miller’s novel “Augustown”.
The novel is set in the fictional community of Augustown, geographically located at 17° 59′ 0″ North, 76° 44′ 0″ West, we are told, “a community that bears an uncanny resemblance to and shares a parallel history with a very real place: August Town, Jamaica.” The novel moves between the 1920s and the 1980s and as the narrator says:
“When the past takes hold of us, it does not let go easily. We find ourselves, miraculously, in two places at once.”
Every character in the novel feels as though s/he has been well-seasoned and simmered long. You learn more about some than others, savour some more than others, which is the way with any book. “Irie Tafari, otherwise known as Ma Taffy” is the blind, old woman who bridges the two places in time, telling the story of Alexander Bedward, the flying preacherman, even as we are shepherded towards the autoclaps that takes place in the 1980s. Because when young Kaia runs home crying and tells Ma Taffy “Is the teacher, Grandma. Is Mr Saint-Josephs who cut off my dreadlocks”, you know it can’t end just so. You know, as Ma Taffy knows before she even knows what was done to Kaia, that it can’t end just so:
Ma Taffy lifts the spliff back to her mouth. She is growing nervous. Another coming autoclaps. ‘Steady your heart, Taffy, ‘she whispers to herself. ‘Steady.’
So you journey through time and place, walking into the lives of the characters – Bongo Moody, Mrs G, Miss G, Mr Saint-Josephs, his wife Mary, Governor Leslie Probyn, Sister Gilzene, Soft-Paw and others – and whether you walk with a character for a mile or only a few fleeting steps, you feel you have glimpsed someone real, or someone who could have been real. (Brief note – the only one that feels undone to me is Richard Azaar, the “brash businessman”, who could have done with a pinch more seasoning and half-an-hour more on the stove.)
The novel is an exercise in story-telling, quite explicitly, and has the feel of a fable, of folklore. The story of Bedward, from one perspective or another, is part of both Jamaican history and Jamaican folklore. The story of Rastas having their locks trimmed is also part of Jamaican history and a legendary image of abuse. Kei Miller easily mixes mythical threads with excerpts from Gleaner archives, as he tells a deeply moving story of individual lives and of divisions – class, colour, race, religion, culture – and the impact on people and communities. Things that are past but are still present.
If you haven’t already, you might want to read “Augustown”.