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Augustown
Cover of Augustown
Augustown
A Novel
11 April 1982: a smell is coming down John Golding Road right alongside the boy-child, something attached to him, like a spirit but not quite. Ma Taffy is growing worried. She knows that something is going to happen. Something terrible is going to pour out into the world. But if she can hold it off for just a little bit longer, she will. So she asks a question that surprises herself even as she asks it, "Kaia, I ever tell you bout the flying preacherman?"
Set in the backlands of Jamaica, Augustown is a magical and haunting novel of one woman's struggle to rise above the brutal vicissitudes of history, race, class, collective memory, violence, and myth.
11 April 1982: a smell is coming down John Golding Road right alongside the boy-child, something attached to him, like a spirit but not quite. Ma Taffy is growing worried. She knows that something is going to happen. Something terrible is going to pour out into the world. But if she can hold it off for just a little bit longer, she will. So she asks a question that surprises herself even as she asks it, "Kaia, I ever tell you bout the flying preacherman?"
Set in the backlands of Jamaica, Augustown is a magical and haunting novel of one woman's struggle to rise above the brutal vicissitudes of history, race, class, collective memory, violence, and myth.
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  • From the book First you must imagine the sky, blue and cloudless if that helps, or else the luminously black spread of night. Next—and this is the important bit—you must imagine yourself inside it. Inside the sky, floating beside me. Below us, the green and blue disc of the earth.

    Now focus. 17° 59' 0" North, 76° 44' 0" West. Down there is the Caribbean, though not the bits you might have seen in a pretty little brochure. We are beyond the aquamarine waters, with their slow manatees and graceful sea turtles, and beyond the beaches littered with sweet almonds. We have gone inland. Down there is a dismal little valley on a dismal little island. Notice the hills, how one of them carries on its face a scar—a section where bulldozers and tractors have sunk their rusty talons into its cheeks, scraped away the brush and the trees and left behind a white crater of marl. The eyesore can be seen from ten or more miles away. To the people who live in this valley, it feels as if they wear the scar on their own skin—as if a kind of ruin has befallen them.

    Seen from up here, the ramshackle valley looks like a pot of cornmeal porridge, rusting tin roofs stirred into its hot, bubbling vortex. Perhaps it is the dust bowls, the tracts of sand and the dry riverbed that give the place this cornmeally look. The streets run in unplanned and sometimes maze-like directions; paved roads often thin into dirt paths; wide streets narrow into alleys lined with zinc or scrap-board fences. If solid concrete houses rise like sentinels at the beginning of a road, the architecture will devolve into clumsy board shacks by the time you get to the cul-de-sac. If on one road the houses are separated into tidy lots, on the road just over they are crowded together and lean into each other as if for comfort. This is a community that does not quite come together.

    We must imagine there was a time when all of this was beautiful and unscarred; a time when the hills were whole and green—verdant humps rolling up towards the Blue Mountain range above; a time when the valley was thick with guava trees, when wild parakeets flew above the forest and fat iguanas sunbathed on river-smoothed rocks. But that is all we can do. Imagine. There is no forest any more, and no more iguanas, and the mineral river that once flowed swiftly through the valley is now dammed up, its waters diverted to the city's reservoir. Where there was once a perfect green hill, there is now a scar, and where there was once a river, there is now just a dry riverbed, little boys playing football among its vast sands. Where there once was beauty, now there is just "Augustown," or sometimes "Greater Augustown" if you listen to the island's city officials, who have seen fit to attach to it, like addendums, the nearby districts of Kintyre, Rockers, Bryce Hill, Dread Heights and "Gola.

    Down there it is 11 April 1982, a day I have watched over and over again, as if from up here I could change things; could slip inside its hours and change the outcome. But I can only watch.

    For here is the truth: each day contains much more than its own hours, or minutes, or seconds. In fact, it would be no exag­geration to say that every day contains all of history.
About the Author-
  • KEI MILLER is the author of two previous novels, several poetry collections, and Fear of Stones and Other Stories, which was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book. In 2014, he won the Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection for The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Born in Jamaica, he lives in London and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 13, 2017
    The Jamaican novelist and poet Miller (The Last Warner Woman) presents a rueful portrait of the enduring struggle between those who reject an impoverished life on his native island and the forces that hold them in check, what the rastafari call Babylon. The year is 1982, and a teacher cuts the dreadlocks off a child named Kaia because he looks “like some dirty little African.” Ma Taffy, Kaia’s aunt, comforts him with the story of Bedward, an Augustown preacher and forerunner of the rastafari. Sixty years earlier, Bedward’s miraculous attempt “‘to rise up into de skies like Elijah’” was halted by the “Babylon boys” pulling him down “with a long hooker stick.” Like Bedward, Kaia’s mother believes she might escape: the principal of the school has been tutoring her, and after the local college accepts her application, “a certain lightness of being” takes her over, “as if she could close her eyes right now and begin to rise.” After seeing Kaia’s bald head, though, she is instead forced into a confrontation with Babylon. In the end, there is no avoiding “the stone” Ma Taffy describes the poor people of Augustown being born with, “the one that always stop we from rising.” The flashback is telling of Miller’s talent for infusing his lyrical descriptions of the island’s present with the weight of its history.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from March 15, 2017
    A boy's schoolroom punishment opens a window into the roiling, mystical history of a Jamaican community.When Kaia arrives at the home of his great-aunt Ma Taffy from school with his dreadlocks shorn off, it's more than a case of a teacher taking discipline too far. It's a direct attack on the family's Rastafarian heritage, and the incident prompts Ma Taffy to think back on the history of Kingston's Augustown neighborhood and the persecutions two generations past. More specifically, she recalls the story of Alexander Bedward, a proto-Rastafari preacher who in the 1920s captivated the island with rumors that he was able to levitate. And, just as Bedward was attacked by the then-ruling British government threatened by his popularity, Miller suggests that the bigotry persisted into 1982, when the story is set. Miller's excellent third novel is built on sharp, sensitive portraits of key players in what at first seems a minor incident, from Ma Taffy and Bedward to Kaia's teacher, the school principal, and neighborhood gangsters, each of whom are fending off personal and cultural misunderstandings. To that end, they're all subject to the concept of -autoclaps,- Jamaican slang for calamity; Miller returns to this point often, and storytelling suggests that Augustown (based on the real August Town) is a place where the other shoe keeps dropping. Miller insists that Bedward's floating not be interpreted as sprightly magical realism but as a symbol for how the place is misunderstood and how such misunderstandings feed into needless violence: -Consider...not whether you believe in this story or not,- he writes, -but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.- Despite the novel's relative brevity, Miller captures the ways community, faith, and class create a variety of cultural microclimates.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    January 1, 2017
    This latest from London-based award winner Miller arrives with a flourish owing to the Jamaican setting, echoing Marlon James's Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. But while James's writing is architecturally intensive, Miller uses simple but evocative diction to unfold the tightly focused story of one woman and her community.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Marlon James, author of Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings "A deceptive spellbinder, a metafiction so disguised as old-time storytelling that you can almost hear the crackle of home fires as it starts. But then it gets you with twists and turns, it seduces and shocks you even as it wrestles with the very nature of storytelling itself. It's the story of women haunted by women, and of the dangers of both keeping secrets and saying too much."
  • The Observer
    "Miller's writing has a cool immediacy [that] gives more than a nod to García Márquez... A vivid modern fable, richly nuanced and empathetic."
    --The Guardian


    "The language is as clear as spring water, the characters are vividly drawn."
  • The Sunday Times (London)
    "Miller's storytelling is superb, its power coming from the seamless melding of the magical and the everyday that gives his novel a significant fabular quality."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Augustown
A Novel
Kei Miller
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