Some critics call At the Bottom of the River a novel; others call it a collection of stories. Certainly the stories’ interconnections lend a sense of continuity to this thin volume. Much of At the Bottom of the River is a recollection of Jamaica Kincaid’s childhood on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The author captures the identity of this region and its people with remarkable accuracy in her sketches. By telling her stories largely from a child’s point of view, Kincaid gracefully intermixes the outside world with her protagonist’s mental world of dreams, images, fantasy, and mysticism.
The book’s ten stories dwell upon racial and mother-daughter relationships. The daughter is obsessed by her mother, an overpowering love object for her. Her attempts to break from her maternal dependence are central to many of the sketches. The sketch “My Mother” recounts with great poignancy a girl’s emotional odyssey from early childhood to the point of needing to loose herself from a reliance upon the mother she dearly loves. The narrative is disarmingly simple and direct. The child’s dreamworld intrudes constantly upon the outside world, with which she must necessarily merge. She cries a “pond of tears” at separating from her mother. The girl’s exile, expressed in the words “she [the mother] shook me out and stood me under a tree,” is connected to her memory of the childhood punishment of being banished, when she had misbehaved, from her house to take her dinner under the breadloaf trees. This story is about lost innocence and the attempt to recapture it.
The sketch “At Last” considers the essence of things. The child asks what becomes of the hen whose feathers are scattered, whose flesh is stripped away, whose bones disappear. Kincaid broaches similar universal questions in “Blackness,” in which she deals with the mystery of the generations, with the child who grows up to become a mother to the succeeding generation. The questions posed in this story are questions that puzzled the ancient Greek philosophers and that still puzzle thinking people everywhere.