Augustown first came to my attention when it was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize earlier this year. Since then, Miller has won the OCM BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Literature and been shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Green Carnation Prize for this, his third novel.
The Augustown of the novel is a fictional place, according to the author’s note, but one that shares a history and ‘bears an uncanny resemblance to’ a real place: August Town, Jamaica. In a way, this is the first clue that this is a story built around real events but becoming more of a fable.
The story begins with Ma Taffy, a blind old woman who lives with her niece Gina and her son Kaia. When Kaia walks home from school one day, she can smell that something has happened to him, something wrong. Kaia’s school teacher has taken umbrage with his dreadlocked hair and cut it off. Ma Taffy tells Kaia the story of the flying preacherman, the true story of Alexander Bedward who prophesied that he would one day fly but instead ended up in an institution. She can sense that something bad is about to happen.
And Ma Taffy wondered why they made it mean so much, this Nazirite vow she herself had taken: No blade shall ever touch my head. It was just hair, after all. It was just hair. It could grow back. It was nothing for a big, big man to lose his life over. But in her heart, Ma Taffy knew it was more than enough to die for. She knew that for people to be people, they had to believe in something. They had to believe that something was worth believing in. And they had to carry that thing in their hearts and guard it, for once you believed in something, in anything at all, Babylon would try its damnedest to find out what that thing was, and they would try to take it from you.
From Ma Taffy’s premonition arises a sense of impending doom. As she predicts the autoclaps to come, so the reader waits with baited breath to find out what will happen. Weaving the old neighbourhood stories amongst these few hours in the present (or the present as far as Ma Taffy is concerned, which is 1982), as we see the teacher wait in his schoolroom, knowing that judgment is on its way, there is a gentle tension building. While Ma Taffy is telling Kaia the story of Bedward, his mother Gina, or Miss G to her employer (who happens also to be the principal at Kaia’s school) is deciding whether to share her great secret. Miller weaves all of these strands together until the novel reaches its climax, its catastrophe.
There are various elements of magic realism at work in this novel. The way Ma Taffy tells the story it seems that Bedward really could fly and it was the local authorities who brought him crashing down; the very conclusion of the novel seems impossible. The way she senses danger, and can smell it, goes far beyond any expected heightening of her senses following her blinding. There is much to be discussed around the issue of race; those with wealth and power in Kingston are invariably white or light skinned, living above the Augustown valley so that, as Gina says to one young white man, ‘people like you can just stay up here and watch, like gods.’ And this for me is the strength of the book: its discussion around Jamaican society and the damaging impact of British empire that still scars it.