Who owns a story? Who has the right to tell it? And if they have the right, how should it be told? Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman explores these questions as the narrator “Mr. Writer Man” and the protagonist, Adamine Bustamante, the “Warner Woman,” duel and duet to tell her story, which, without giving too much away, is Mr. Writer Man’s story too.
Miller deploys many narrative techniques, from the linear to collage, so by novel’s end you have our dueling narrators abandoning a strict linear progression model as the story pauses and folds back as it figures out how to fully tell and finish itself. It’s almost as if the novel, sensing what I felt as a reader “I do not want this story to end yet” finds a way to delay that last page just a bit longer, without lengthening the story unnecessarily. The technique Mr. Writer man deploys is interviewing all the people who knew Adamine during her mental hospital stay, piecing together that period of her life when she refuses to tell any more of her story to him, getting to the bottom of her mysterious pregnancy through the stories of others. For Adamine it includes parable, everything from an Anansi story to dreams, her technique one of “crossways” as she puts it, since “sometimes you have to tell a story the way you dream a dream, and everyone know that dreams don’t walk straight.”
And yet at the very end she comes round to telling it straight, and when a story is told straight with just the bare facts it occupies short space on the page. But it is when she tells her story straight that her story and Mr. Writer Man’s story finally intersect in a satisfying way that I will leave you to discover. But to some other questions:
Is the narrative arcMr. Writer Man (seemingly at first white and British and interested in “the other”) superior to Ada’s telling of her own story in her own way, at her own pace? Can both exist side-by-side as equal tales, the reader taking pleasure in both Mr. Writer Man’s omissions and liberties and lies to get at a deeper truth in Ada’s story, and Ada’s denials and corrections to her own tale? Both are unreliable characters and narrators, and there is great pleasure for the reader in analyzing the motives for both.
The questions about story-telling the novel raises, and Mr. Writer Man’s investigative approach to research and official documents and interviews, kept leading me to the art of (creative) nonfiction where these questions of emotional truth vs. actual fact, of conflicting versions that somehow together make a whole, of usurping others’ voices come into play. And the biggest question of all: where does Kei Miller fit in as the story-teller behind these two story-tellers? For all the dueling techniques of our narrators, it is all Kei’s creation, his imagination bringing these voices to life on the page. It is his vision in the end, his structure, his crafting. But does he own their stories, or does he raise an interesting question about the author’s relationship to his or her material taking on a life of its own?
Some final words: I found it funny that a reader’s review found fault with this novel, a novel about storytelling and who owns a story, because this griping reader felt the author didn’t spend more time with the leper colony. It’s as if she’s missed the point: the line “once upon a time there was a leper colony in Jamaica” can transport you to a time and place that sets a whole set of actions in motion that move us far from the initial point (a stranger arrives at a leper colony) to the end point (a revelation that I will not spoil for you, but it involves the fate of the Warners).
Speaking of which, one of the best parts of this reading experience for me was having a Warner Man appear before me while reading the passage about the warning to first come upon Ada. Living in NY, commuting on the subway, a man I normally would have tuned out for his early morning rant appeared in new light to me as I listened to his warning for all of us around. This was no normal Bible-thumper or apocalypse warner. He had a simple warning about our judgments and wicked tongues. And never mind that he seemed to be confronting an invisible presence. His tone and inflection and rhythm left me with my heart churned and thankful, as noted in this novel, to not be the direct target of a warning. But it also reminded me, as the novel does, that the warnings still exist. Ignore them at your own risk.