Set in the loosely fictionalized Jamaican town of Augustown
(“loosely,” as it bears a strong resemblance to August Town, which was absorbed
over time into the expansion of Kingston), the novel spans three generations of
a single family. The novel moves back
and forth easily through different moments in time, from the birth of
Rastafariansim in 1920 under British colonional rule, through the post-colonial
division of the island and its citizens into turbulent threads, to the present
day of 1982, where the same tensions run strong as ever.
Ostensibly a family novel, the story centers on Ma Taffy,
her niece Gina, and Gina’s son Kaia, and it boils down to several key moments
in their lives. But these moments are
brief in the overall bulk of the novel, the majority of which is devoted to the
fleshing out of the world that permits – and, as we ultimately realize,
requires – that such moments come to pass.
There is the miracle of the preacher Alexander Bedward, who, as seen
through the eyes of Ma Taffy, could have literally floated up to the Heavens; the comically doomed marriage and foiled
aspirations of schoolteacher Emanuel Saint-Josephs; the errand run by Soft-Paw,
a young gang member; the second chance that comes before the well-to-do Claudia
Garrick; the friendship of Clarky and Bongo Moody, and their run-ins with the
police. As Miller moves between these
characters, the forces pushing Ma Taffy, Gina, and Kaia to their conclusion
become clearer and harder to resist.
Despite the complexity of the novel’s structure, Miller
easily weaves all of the component parts together. The result is absorbing and affecting, a
novel that is as much a family drama as it is an exploration of the legacy of
colonialism, religion, class conflict, and violence.
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