After years of estrangement in a foreign land, what can a Jamaican expect to find on return home? The remembered warmth and beauty of the island have remained with them, in some cases for over half a century of British exile. However, a hundred changes have occurred, not all for the best. Brooding over the lost pleasures of one's homeland can exaggerate their charm and sweetness, and returnees are often devastated to find that Jamaica is not what they expected.
Kei Miller's debut novel casts a sympathetic eye on the tribulations of Jamaican migrants in Britain, and their dreams of homecoming. The setting alternates between Manchester and Watersgate, a rural village near the Jamaican capital of Kingston. Nothing much happens in Watersgate; even the name is misleading, as there are no watercourses in the area .
Imelda Richardson was born in Watersgate in 1956 under exceptional circumstances. Her mother was not pregnant when she gave birth: was Imelda a biological miracle? As the 1960s give way to the 1970s, Imelda falls in love with Joseph Martin, a dreadlocked Rastaman who dreams of repatriation to Africa. Like many adepts of Rastafari, Joseph lives in expectation of some inflicted hardship or other – of which, in Jamaica's stark history of slavery, there is a constant supply.
At 18, Imelda sets out for England, determined to work in the Mother Country. By filling the poorest jobs, Jamaicans like Imelda were giving Britain a form of development aid: "colonizin Englan in reverse", as the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett put it.
Squalid bedsits await Imelda, as she looks for a livelihood in Manchester. Eventually, a fellow Jamaican, Purletta Johnson, takes her in as a paying guest. Purletta, overweight, ganja-smoking, rapidly becomes Imelda's confidante and minder. With her help, Imelda signs up for a law course. She has no sooner done so than she learns that her mother has died in Watersgate. Imelda returns to her birthplace, not knowing quite what to expect. "To pack up and go back home in not an easy thing", comments Miller, with characteristic understatement.
For a while, Imelda believes herself at home. Soon her life in Watersgate begins to feel wrong: the locals are not sure what to make of the returnee with her fancy English education. Imelda is in danger of becoming a querulous, disappointed woman, disenchanted by the "disrespect" shown her.
In compensation, she is reunited with Joseph, who has been waiting for her. As their love is rekindled, her homecoming is made bearable. The Same Earth, a humorous, bittersweet fiction, combines the fantastical realism of Márquez with the domestic comedy of Andrea Levy, to create an island saga richly brocaded in folklore and West Indian custom. Miller, himself a Jamaican, is a name to watch.
Ian Thomson is writing a book on Jamaica for Faber & FaberReuse content