Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Annie John, a slim novel—the chapters of which originally appeared as short stories in The New Yorker—is a first-person account of the childhood and adolescence of Annie John, a girl reared on the small Caribbean island of Antigua.
Annie experiences a childhood paradise. Her island home explodes with bright colors: the brilliant, flamboyant flowers, white sand, and blue sky and sea. The close community nurtures her. Mr. Earl and Mr. Nigel catch the fish that Annie and her parents eat. Mr. Kenneth, the butcher, offers Annie a piece of raw liver, one of the few foods that she enjoys, and Miss Dewberry bakes the buns that Annie’s parents serve at tea. Annie is also part of an affectionate and supportive family. Together, she and her father, a carpenter, select the lumber that he will fashion into her bedroom furniture. Most important, however, Annie loves and is loved by her mother. Her mother teaches Annie about washing (white clothes are to be bleached by the sun on a stone) and about cooking traditional dishes (such as pumpkin soup, banana fritters, and stewed salt fish)—skills that Annie will need when, it is assumed, she establishes her own household on the island. Annie enjoys the days spent with her mother, days filled with walking to the grocer’s; arranging her mother’s trunk that holds memorabilia such as Annie’s wool booties, certificates of merit, and dresses worn on special occasions; bathing together in water...
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Annie John (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
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...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Annie John, originally published as a series of short stories in The New Yorker magazine, is the story of the title character’s childhood and adolescent years in Antigua, West Indies. The novel is divided into eight chapters, each with its own title and internal unity of plot. Set in Antigua, these eloquent and engaging chapters chronicle Annie’s confused understanding of the rift between her happy, carefree girlhood years of adulation for her mother and the power struggle and rebellion that mark Annie’s transition into adolescence. The tale is told simply, with unrelenting and unapologetic candor, in the hypnotic narrative voice of a young schoolgirl. Annie presents the tension and alienation that she experiences from her mother; the separation from her friends as she outmatures them physically, academically, and emotionally; and, finally, her separation from Antigua, her island home.
Images of separation pervade each of the eight stories. In “Figures in the Distance,” for example, Annie speaks about her fascination with death and dying, specifically about the deaths of Nalda, the mud eater, and of the humpbacked girl, whose hump Annie wished she had tapped to see if it was hollow. The images of the “black and white sticklike figures” bobbing in the distance in what turned out to be a cemetery, the peculiar curiosity about funeral parlors, and the compulsion at the tender age of ten to attend funerals of people she does...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Many women writers of color are not averse to the idea of feminism. They are still grappling, however, with the issue of being placed in the feminist category, their writing read exclusively within the feminist protest tradition. Consciously engaging in a feminist discourse is not a choice for many of these writers. While Kincaid detests the idea of claiming to belong to, or of being categorized as belonging to, any school of writing or thought, she confesses in a 1989 interview to owing much of her success to the idea of feminism. Her writings make a major contribution to women’s literature in that they examine the feminine role. By using the autobiographical first-person narrative and protagonist, Kincaid offers a voice that...
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Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Austin, Jacqueline. “Up from Eden.” Review of Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1985, 6-7. An enthusiastic review that also tries to locate Kincaid’s work in the larger tradition of Caribbean writing.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Study of the representation of motherhood and maternal relationships in Kincaid’s writing. Includes a chapter on Annie John that focuses on the role of the mother in enabling the daughter to become a writer.
Cudjoe, Selwyn R.,...
(The entire section is 534 words.)