Jamaica Kincaid begins her tough, ironic, and lyrical novel by having her narrator, Xuela, a seventy-year-old resident of the Caribbean island of Dominica, announce that “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity.” Such a beginning promises the reader that an examination of big themes—life, identity, meaning—will surely follow, and in this respect, The Autobiography of My Mother does not disappoint.
Beginning with the subtitle, “a novel,” appended to the title on the front cover of the book’s dust jacket, the ironic self-contradiction is transformed by this work into a literary probe for exploring beneath the smooth surface of things. Besides juxtaposing the words “autobiography” and “novel,” the title conceals a deeper irony: The main character is childless and aborting her pregnancy at the age of sixteen. Furthermore, these ironies of the novel’s name are reflective of the ironies of Xuela’s life. For instance, Xuela loves only one man in her life, Roland, who is already married; she marries a doctor named Philip who worships her, but she refuses to love him. If at times such irony can seem to be pretty thin gruel for nourishing a novel, the writing is richly evocative enough that the fruits of a life sustained by irony seem alternately refreshing and bleak.
The heavy layers of irony and the problematic title will not seem too surprising to longtime readers of Jamaica Kincaid. Since her debut collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River that (1983), she has made a literary career out of mining the relationship between a mother and a daughter for every bit of irony and pathos it can offer. If her fiction has been narrow in its focus, it has also penetrated deeply.
Jamaica Kincaid—who was born Elaine Potter Richardson—created a lyrical beauty in At the Bottom of the River that she has never quite matched since. Not only the much reprinted “Girl,” which seems to condense a young life’s frustrations into a mouthful of overbearing, motherly instructions, but virtually every story in the collection has a compactness that seems to do more work than words normally can. The reader does not merely read the words of these stories; the images are also seen, felt, and experienced, but not always easily. The highly poetic prose of that work strips away the comfort of narrative, much as some of the best prose of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce does. Her follow-up novel, Annie John, was still highly lyrical in style, but was written in a much more conventional prose style. Because the two works cover much of the same ground—the development of a creative young girl as she matures, suffers a nervous breakdown, then recovers and leaves her native island (presumably Kincaid’s native island, Antigua)—they are almost inseparable complements of one another. Annie John provides a key to some of the more obscure passages of At the Bottom of the River without reducing the rich complexity of that earlier work, or sacrificing its own beauty.
Though her follow-up works—the memoir of growing up in a colonized land, A Small Place (1988), and the novel which follows a character very similar to Annie John into adulthood, Lucy (1990)—both contain powerful writing, the pains of childhood which ignited the writing of her first two books are replaced by an anger of adulthood. Though Kincaid’s writing was still well crafted, many readers found it less satisfying to follow where this new extension of her subject matter took her.
In contrast to her earlier fictions, which focused on a well defined portion of a life, in The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid for the first time takes it as her task to survey the entire shape of a character’s life. The childhood sections of the novel convey the same type of wonderment, longing, and loneliness of Kincaid’s first two books, and if she has ratcheted the emptiness and longing up a notch or two, one result is that the wonderment comes into greater relief. One incident which neatly captures the essence of this narrative contradance occurs early in the novel, as Xuela is describing her daily walk to school with a number of neighborhood companions whom she does not consider to be friends, but merely necessary companions. One morning when they come to a stream they have to cross, they see a naked woman bathing in the stream. One boy swims out to her until he exhausts himself and disappears without a trace; the woman disappears too. “That woman was not a woman,” the narrator tells us; “she was a something that took the shape of a woman.” For the other children who were there that day, this story entered into the realm of myth they did not really believe, “like the virgin birth or other such miracles”; a belief in this apparition “was the belief of the illegitimate, the poor, the low.”...
(The entire section is 2035 words.)