REVIEW: AUGUSTOWN

Rating: 4.5/5

256 pages

Orion Publishing Co; 2017

One April day in Augustown, Jamaica. Ma Taffy, old and blind, sits in her usual spot on the veranda. No matter how the world tilts around her, come hurricane or riot, she knows everything that goes on in this small community. Which is why, when her six-year-old nephew returns home from school with his dreadlocks shorn, she realises that trouble won’t be far behind. And so she tells him the story of Alexander Bedward, the flying preacherman. She remembers what happened to the Rastaman and his helper, Bongo Moody; she thinks of Soft-Paw, the leader of the Angola gang, and what lies beneath her house. For trouble is brewing once more among the ramshackle lanes of Augustown, and as Ma Taffy knows, each day contains much more than its own hours, or minutes, or seconds. In fact, each day contains all of history…

This is a unique story that weaves magical realism within each page. Kei Miller masterfully draws you into the world of Augustown residents through the eyes of Ma Taffy – a wise, if eccentric woman, who loses her sight when a rat colony crashes through her bedroom ceiling and scratch her eyes out in the melee.

As you meet each character, you may find yourself drawing comparisons to counterparts in your life and neighbourhoods – whether because of their mannerisms, habits, or personalities.

The stories weave around a flying preacher, Alexander Bedward, as well as the histories of Ma Taffy; her brainy niece, Gina; Clarky, a Rastafarian fruit vender bullied by policemen; a young gang leader who hides a cache of weapons under Ma Taffy’s house; the affluent light-skinned principal of Kaia’s primary school; and Mr. Saint-Josephs, a teacher at that school who triggers what Jamaicans call an “autoclaps,” or catastrophe, when, in a fit of rage, he cuts off the dreadlocks of Ma Taffy’s grandnephew Kaia.

An established poet in his own right, Miller draws on the the rhythm of that artform to add a touch of lyrcism within each scene and interaction from crowds chanting during Bedward’s sermons, culminating in his attempt to fly to the heavens (which results disaster) to Rastafarians marching to the school in solidarity with Kaia, which results violent catharsis. This is in the form of Kaia’s mother, Gina, stabbing Mr. Saint-Josephs’ through the eye with the same pair of scissors he used to cut the child’s hair.

Augustown is one of those books that is difficult to put down or forget long after the last page is turned. Do yourself a favour and block a few hours of your day or give yourself the gift of a lazy weekend day in order to properly immerse yourself in the village’s stories, with all of their quirks, triumphs, and fallibles.

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