How do we read about characters so radically different from ourselves without bringing our own assumptions into the story? It’s the same challenge we face walking down any street and encountering someone who appears to be from a different class, race, gender, sexual orientation, social group or religion. It’s something I loved about reading Petina Gappah’s novel “The Book of Memory” earlier this year. In this book she challenges the lazy way we divide people up into categories as if they must inevitably be one particular thing. It’s these very categories which reinforce structures of imbalance in our society and prevent us from seeing people as infinitely more complex than any one aspect of their identity.

In his novel “Augustown” Kei Miller also asks us to question the assumptions we make about people. Central to this book is the story of an over-zealous teacher who cuts off a boy’s dreadlocks in his classroom. This is in a poor neighbourhood school in the fictional city of Augustown in Jamaica and this incident sparks off a dramatic event that gets the whole town marching. Built around this story are stories characters tell each other. These tales span back many years and involve a range of dynamic and vividly-realized characters from a cleaner prone to delusions to a pot-bellied Governor to a down-and-out man locked up in a madhouse who goes on to lead a revolt as a flying holy man. Using poetic language and a rigorous intelligence, Miller builds layered, intriguing, interweaving tales of the people from Augustown showing how the past is linked with the present. The effect is utterly absorbing for the secrets that are revealed and fascinating for the way his ideas make you stop and think.

The novel shows how highly politicised gradations of skin colour are in Jamaica. Some people attempt to attach themselves to individuals of a higher class and/or lighter skin colour to elevate themselves out of a perceived lower class skin colour. One man reasons “Marriage to her would be an exaltation at last out of the blackness to which some unobservant people thought he belonged.” The story also shows how Rastafarians rebelled against this and the character of Alexander Bedward initiates a movement to fight against connections between class/social status and skin colour. The popular Bedwardism mantra is “there is a white wall and a black wall, but the black wall is growing bigger and will crush the white wall. The stories show how the external and internalized racism becomes untenable at certain points of history causing emotional acts of rebellion.

Although there are many characters and stories being told, the overarching story is always tightly controlled by a narrator who guides the reader through this community and its history. It’s only near the end of the novel that the narrator’s identity is revealed. At some points through the story the narrator’s voice comes to the forefront actively commenting upon how the reader might interpret the story. One of the most memorable instances is when the narrator references times where characters in the story fly and it’s stated: “Look, this isn’t ‘magic realism’. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. NO. You won’t get off so easy. This is a story about people as real as you are, and as real as I once was before I became a bodiless thing floating up here in the sky. You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question, not whether you believe in this story or not, but if this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.” It’s true that the literary style of magical realism has become entwined with notions of folklore and underdeveloped nations. Reading certain stories and branding them with this classification can dilute the power literature has to connect us with other people’s real experiences.

Later this notion is reiterated when commenting upon the storytellers of a community: “The great philosophical questions goes: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?... If a man flies in Jamaica, and only the poor will admit to seeing it, has he still flown?... Always – always – there are witnesses.” There are aspects of history we remain wilfully deaf to because they occur outside of our own socio-economic circle. Stories that come from people within other circles might be dismissed because the teller can be discounted as invalid or irrelevant. This novel encourages us to really listen to and respect the testimonies of individuals whose stories we are prone to dismissing because of difference.

It’s artful the way Miller balances his powerful ideas with a plethora vibrant storytelling. “Augustown” is an elegantly written and engrossing book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKei Miller

In the past year, I’ve been captivated by a series of impressive new books by Irish authors. There has been powerful fiction from debut authors like Danielle McLaughlin and Gavin McCrea as well as exciting new novels from established voices like Edna O’Brien, John Banville and Anne Enright. Not only have novels by writers such as Gavin Corbett, Belinda McKeon, Kevin Barry and Sara Baume delivered powerful stories, but these books meaningfully break form to fashion a new kind of writing. Paraic O’Donnell’s writing in “The Maker of Swans” is also resolutely its own thing. I wouldn’t exactly categorize it under that flabby moniker ‘experimental’ – nor would I categorize it as anything except a novel. A grand rural house presided over by a mysterious man may sound like a set up straight out of classic fiction, but the way O’Donnell tells it makes this story so strikingly compelling.

The master of the house is Mr Crowe who possesses rare indeterminate skills, a substantial library and a pen that once belonged to Shelley. He is attended to by a faithful butler named Eustace whose duties extend beyond that of a normal servant as is made clear in the novel’s dramatic opening. Mr Crowe arrives home very late after an evening of indulgence with a sultry singer in his car and a jealous man in pursuit. The jilted lover soon lies dead on the lawn and it’s up to Eustace to take care of the body. This is a tale of murder, kidnapping and mystery, but it’s more about art, language and literature. What sacrifice is needed to create a beautiful work of art? Do words have the power to really codify experience and the physical world? How do great books help us straddle the line between the conscious and unconscious? Is the life captured in art true or false? None of these questions are raised overtly within the story, but rise subtly within the narrative and the labyrinthine path it takes to a strangely unsettling climax.

Central to the story is a mute girl named Clara who (like many of the house’s residents) is seemingly ageless and lives there under Mr Crowe’s guardianship – although she is much closer to Eustace. She treads lightly between the real world and dreams making her an avid recorder of fantastical tales. Her abilities for recall are unparalleled making it is a favourite game in the household to pick any book from Mr Crowe’s large library and Clara will write down the opening lines from memory. This is how her passion for reading is described: “The books she loves most are those that seem somehow complete, their worlds proximate and habitable. There is an ease in entering those other lives, in feeling herself enclosed by another consciousness. It is strange, that unruptured intimacy, like possessing a second skin.” This is certainly anyone’s ideal reading experience!

Eustace keeps an orrery in his room which demonstrates the motions of the planets

Eustace keeps an orrery in his room which demonstrates the motions of the planets

The novel takes many divergent paths including a heartrending back story of Eustace’s origins and a tense section where Clara is incarcerated by a sinister figure named Nazaire and his ailing employer Dr Chastern. Yet, the story always circles back to Mr Crowe, his mysterious abilities and the seemingly sacred position he holds. Crowe is simultaneously a progenitor of the world’s best writing and the embodiment of fiction’s greatest characters from Mr. Rochester to John Silver to Ted Hughes’ trickster Crow. He’s rambunctious, lustful and charismatic. Both artist and muse he believes that we should “Never leave a void where something may be written.” It’s as if his ability to perfectly encapsulate the beauty of life can give meaning to all that is seemingly meaningless.  

The experience of reading “The Maker of Swans” is something like that hypnagogic state of consciousness where the familiar world is slightly bent and it feels like anything can happen. There appears to be an overriding logic although it never becomes clear. Unlike other cerebral writers such as David Mitchell who feel it’s necessary to show the mechanics behind their fantastical schematic landscapes, O’Donnell thankfully never lays out the nuts and bolts of his story. He is very good at creating intrigue so even if I didn’t understand what was happening I wanted to know what was going to happen next. What also drives the story are bursts of humour and some truly beautiful figurative writing where wet “cobbles have the muted gloss of eel skin.” This is a fantastically inventive novel that purposefully builds new paths for fiction and it’s also another fine example of the exciting new writing coming out of Ireland.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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