Book review: The Last Warner Woman

By Kei Miller Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99

IT IS fitting that a novel posing questions about the very nature of storytelling should open with the words "once upon a time", here followed by "there was a leper colony in Jamaica."

The Original Pearline Portius is just a teenager, in 1941, when she turns up at the colony trying to sell a hand-knit purple doily. It's an errand of some urgency because until she offloads this unorthodox item – doilies are supposed to be white, you silly girl! – her beleaguered mother has vowed to stand frozen under a guava tree.

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There will be another Pearline Portius, though this one insists her name is Adamine Bustamante. She is the Warner Woman of the title, cast very much in the mould of Cassandra – a woman with unorthodox vision, whose curse is that few will listen to what she has to say. When she arrives in England as a kind of mail order bride – the relationship sours on sight – this gift is so misunderstood that her prophesying lands her in a mental hospital.

One person who is keen to hear what she has to say is the mysterious "author" of this book. He's rescued Adamine and given her a place to live and plenty of food, the only proviso being that she spend part of each day telling him her tales.

But Adamine's not impressed with his abilities, accusing him of twisting the truth to serve his own purposes. Time and again she butts in, offering her version of what really happened. The trouble is, even Adamine's narrative is a bit wonky; even she is prone to exaggeration, misremembering and flat-out confusion. Sometimes, she concedes, his modifications read rather nicely after all.

Why should the bloke Adamine calls Mr Writer Man take such a keen interest in her? Could it be that they share a bond transcending that of author and subject matter? A secondary thread weaving through this narrative is the one linking mothers and their children, and more specifically, absent mothers who nevertheless share an intense bond with their offspring, even after death.

Have I been mysterious about this novel? That's deliberate. This isn't a book for those who prefer information handed to them on a platter. This is a novel for those who are willing to be teased, willing to roll their tongues around colourful patois and willing to suspend disbelief, relinquishing their need for things to turn out as they ought to, in exchange for exploring things as they might be. After all, isn't that level of engagement what makes for the most compelling stories?

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 27, 2010