When her first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), appeared, critics and fellow writers praised the originality of Jamaica Kincaid’s voice and vision. Susan Sontag hailed an “unaffectedly sumptuous, irresistible writer” of “splendid stories about personal and cosmic desire”; Derek Walcott promised that the book would “burn” on its readers’ shelves, “too choked with love to invite envy, too humble for admiration, and too startling to escape astonishment.” In her first novel, Kincaid more than justifies that early praise in a beautifully crafted and subtly modulated work, in which her voice and vision are focused on the story of a sensitive young girl’s coming-of-age in the West Indies.
In a sense, Annie John elaborates the persona, emotions, and experience of the finest stories in At the Bottom of the River, reweaving those threads into a stunning tapestry of ecstasy and loss. Like the self-conscious young girl in “Holidays,” Annie is “filled with sensations.” “I feel,” the girl in the story says, “oh, how I feel. I feel, I feel, I feel.” Like the narrator in “Wingless,” what Annie feels most are the disappointments of growing up. “Tears, big, have run down my cheeks in uneven lines,” that narrator explains. She identifies the cause of those tears as her disappointments:My disappointments stand up and grow ever taller. They will not be lost to me. There they are. Let me pin tags on them. Let me have them registered, like newly domesticated animals. Let me cherish my disappointments, fold them up, tuck them away, close to my breast, because they are so important to me.
Like the girl in “My Mother,” Annie is shaped by both the tremendous love and the importance she feels growing up as an only child at her mother’s side and by the confusion and isolation she feels when that relationship begins to change during her adolescence. “Though glowing red with anger,” the girl in the story returns to her mother’s side and remains there. Yet once their relationship has begun to change, it is as if “my mother and I built houses on opposite banks of the dead pond. The dead pond lay between us; in it, only small invertebrates with poisonous lances lived.” Finally, like the narrator of “At the Bottom of the River,” Annie is forced to confront the power of death and its subversion of her own sense of her privileged existence. Instead of what she once thought life would be—“glorious moment upon glorious moment of contentment and joy and love running into each other and forming an extraordinary chain”—the story’s narrator comes to recognize with intense regret that “in the face of death and all that is and all that it shall be I stand powerless, that in the face of my death my will, to which everything I have ever known bends, stands as if it were nothing more than a string caught in the early-morning wind.”
Annie John begins with Annie’s first encounters with death and ends with her departure from the island of her birth. Midway through it, a teacher orders Annie to copy books 1 and 2 of Paradise Lost as punishment for defacing a picture of Columbus, discoverer of the island. In between, Kincaid details the joys and disappointments of growing up in lyric, often exquisite, always compelling prose. Love and loss, security and insecurity, inclusion and expulsion—these are the emotional poles of Annie John’s experience. Pervading that experience is the sense that growing up consists of a series of paradises found and lost, a series of expulsions from one garden after another—and that, as often as not, the serpent in the garden is the self.
The first-person narrator of the story of Annie John’s growing is Annie John, grown. “For a short while during the year I was ten,” she begins, “I thought only people I did not know died.” In this first paradise, where death does not exist, Annie’s innocence is complete. Like everyone around her, she fears the dead—“because we never could tell when they might show up againstanding under a tree just as you were passing by”—but she does not fear death, which is as yet unreal. As the first chapter, “Figures in the Distance,” proceeds, death swiftly comes closer to her and she approaches closer and closer to it, at first repelled and then intrigued. The daughter of one of her mother’s friends dies in Annie’s mother’s arms. Annie’s father makes the girl’s coffin; her mother prepares the girl for burial. “For a while, though not for very long, I could not bear to have my mother caress me or touch my food or help me with my bath. I especially couldn’t bear the sight of her hands lying still in her lap.” She feels a similar revulsion when the mother of her first friend, Sonia, dies in childbirth. She “couldn’t ever again bring herself to speak to her.She seemed such a shameful thing, a girl whose mother had died and left her alone in the world.”
Soon Annie begins to be intrigued by the...