The Same Earth, By Kei Miller

The strange case of the missing polka-dot panties

Reviewed,Kevin Le Gendre
Sunday 18 May 2008 00:00 BST

Religion and superstition, faith and fear are the classic dichotomies that Miller explores in this punchy, enjoyable novel which shows the 30-year-old Jamaican to be a substantial talent in the making. As a bonus, he throws in the not so classic combination of drum-beating dreads and gay, rather than bent, coppers.

The central axis of the story is the quixotic life of Imelda Richardson, a young woman in the small Jamaican village of Watersgate. She leaves for England in the 1970s, finds her vocation as a lawyer and then returns to try to find herself while all kinds of shenanigans are going on. A neighbour's panties – polka dot ones at that – are purloined; local clergymen are behaving badly; houses are being swept into the river.

Miller works mostly with vignettes. The book is really a collection of pithy short stories rather than a long, uninterrupted narrative. His presentation of specific episodes of a character's life, flashbacks and snatches of memory, lends the whole text the episodic rhythm of a television series. The pace is bouncy.

At the heart of this kaleidoscope of tales is an exploration of the theme of freedom. Richardson embodies both the individual's struggle to escape the confines of physical environment and the limiting perceptions we can have of our own potential. A respectable woman in a relationship with a not so respectable Rastafarian, Richardson needs to emerge from the deep water of small town gossip that threatens to drown her.

While Miller's text isn't short on rib-tickling bitchiness, it is not one extended piece of truculent bad mouthing. There is a psychological and cultural depth here. Hypocrisy in the church is intriguingly laid bare. Equally revealing is the depiction of the clash of town and country, and the ever shifting hinterland between what people know and what they believe. For all its merits, Miller's drama loses momentum in its latter stages. This may well be because the text fragments a touch too much and some of the ancillary characters break the flow of the central story. Yet the verve and lyricism of this work easily sustain the reader's interest. Although the denouement doesn't quite deliver the knockout blow it threatens, the use of strong metaphors and symbols – notably river, sea and ocean – is an effective way of making the characters plunge deeper into their own troubled hearts and minds.

Also impressive is the portrayal of a gay actuary, Eulan Solomon, that steers refreshingly clear of caricature, cliché or sensationalism. In other words, the author's hearty humour, a key feature of the book, is not incompatible with his sense of measure or sobriety.

Having already published poetry and short stories, Miller is branching out assuredly with this new work. It's a story of everyday people with all kinds of demons to wrestle with and it's told with the rousing handclap of a spiritual and the crisp drum-beat of a folk song.

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