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.