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.


This novel is something truly special.  There is much to enjoy in the story itself, the characters, the individual dramas of the supporting characters.  Miller is a skilled storyteller; he crafts moments of horror, humor, and pathos equally well.  Lovers of post-colonial literature will recognize the elements common to the genre.  Lovers of Dickens will feel at home with the cast of characters and the familiarity of a multi-narrative plot that coalesces into a final confrontation.  Lovers of Garcia Marquez will appreciate the magical realism by which many readers have come to identify the literature of other cultures.  

Miller knows well these points of reference that will ground his readers, and he rejects them as much as he embraces them.  He does this thanks to his narrator, whose identity is not revealed until very late in the novel.  The narrator surfaces periodically, and most of these moments serve to destabilize the reader’s sense of their role in this story.  (Most wonderfully, a moment in the middle of the novel chastises the reader for even thinking of “magical realism” when reading certain passages.)  By doing so, this narrator plays with the tradition of the “unrealiable narrator”: the narrator is reliable, it’s our role as readers that is on shaky ground.

This, for me, was the real joy of this novel.  It is difficult to pick up a book about a different place, with a different culture, and experiences so divorced from my own, without clutching at certain touchstones (post-colonial literature, Dickens, magical realism) in order to feel grounded.  That need for familiarity is reflected back on us as we read, almost suggesting that those readerly instincts are complicit in or contribute to the story being told.  (This move, re-positioning the reader relative to the book as it is being read, firmly places the book in post-modernist territory more than anything else.  But there I go again, looking for a familiar frame of reference.) 

Ultimately, this is what I look for in a novel: a reminder that interpretation and identification are problematic by nature.  Without this, as a physician, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security about our ability to identify with our patients, particularly as so much emphasis in medical education these days is placed on understanding our patients by way of their stories.  Empathy does not presuppose real understanding.  “I know how you feel” is rarely an accurate statement.  This novel is a lovely and intelligent reminder of that.


Pantheon Books

Place Published

New York


2016, American First Edition

Page Count