The Madwoman in the Leprosarium

by CHARLES R. LARSON

In an astonishing scene in Kei Miller’s amazing novel, The Last Warner Woman, seventeen-year-old Pearline Portious transforms the lives of the remaining patients in one of Jamaica’s last leper colonies, bringing dignity to their lives.  Pearline has been crocheting small cloths or doilies but not in the accepted white color.  Instead, she’s made them in bold colors—purple, blue, pink, green and so on—so colorful that no one ever buys them.  One day her mother gives her an ultimatum that she had better sell her latest cloth at the market or start doing something else. And late that day, someone purchases her latest doily (which is purple) and orders many more for delivery a week later—all for the leprosarium.  The orders keep piling up, week after week, and finally—when she is permitted to enter the premises—Pearline learns the reason for her belated success.

“She had been prepared for the deformations.  These did not surprise her.  In fact, she thought they might have been worse.  It was true—she saw at once hands without fingers, and coarsened skin that reminded her of alligators, and she saw a crevice in the middle of someone’s face where there should have been a nose, and she saw stumps, and she saw charred limbs….  It was not the bodies themselves that she stared at….  For the first time Pearline realized she had been making bandages.” Later, she realized, “She had transformed the place into a colony of colors.  She had made the lepers beautiful.  And because of her presence laughter would now occasionally rise from the once quiet valley, and people in the mountains wondered if the terrible
sickness had finally left the place.”

Pearline remains in the colony with the lepers and dies some years later while giving birth to a daughter.  That child, Adamine Bustamante, will be known as the last warner woman when she becomes an adult.  She acquires this name because of her
ability to warn, to predict events in advance, and thus to “protect, inspire, and terrify.”  Miller connects her to obeah, to a revivalist group, “Band of the Seventh Fire,” and provides her with a number of remarkable powers but not the ability to protect herself.

The narration skips back and forth in time (beginning in the 1940s and ending, roughly, forty years later) and introduces the narrator known as The Writer Man.  He collects the stories of Adamine, her mother, and numerous other characters, including several in Britain after Adamine has agreed to become the wife of a Jamaican who has recently lost his wife.  But well before we hear of that marriage we learn that Adamine has been placed in a mental institution in Britain, a horrifying mirroring of her mother’s own situation in the leprosarium, a generation earlier.  Milton Dehaney, the husband, has had her incarcerated because she talks back to him.  Shades of Jane Eyre, which has already been glossed earlier in the story.  Miss Lilly, one of the lepers, read and re-read Charlotte Bronte’s novel obsessively.  The book couldn’t be taken away from her.

Surprisingly, the last third of The Last Warner Woman—a dark story of sexual abuse, disease, and incarceration—shifts its tone from near-tragic to comic. Adamine also becomes pregnant, not by her husband Milton, but after she has been incarcerated in the mental institution.  Miller has already provided a poignant context, even though as readers we understand that there is nothing about Adamine that could make her clinically insane: “the highest population of schizophrenic patients in British Asylums had always been West Indian migrants, as if only the very crazy had bothered to climb aboard ships and sail to the Mother Country.”

The outcome of the story will be left to the reader to discover, but Kei Miller should have the final word about The Last Warner Woman.  As the Writer Man remarks, “every book is a miracle—at once fully itself, but also a portion of itself.  That is to say, every book runs cover to cover, but the story within breathes its own breath, inhabits a space larger than its covers can provide.  In the end every story is edited, brought down to some essence, because here is the sad truth: books end, and pages thin, and every word is pulling us toward that last, climatic full-stop.”

Amen.

Kei Miller: The Last Warner Woman

Coffee House Press, 270 pp., $16

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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