Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161
Jamaica Kincaid wrote Annie John shortly after the publication of At the Bottom of the River (1983), a volume of short stories. Though very different in tone and style from her first book, Annie John deals with much of the same material. Where the writing in At the Bottom of the River is ornately textured and impressionistic, however, Annie John adheres much more closely to the conventions of realism. The result is that the two books read as companion volumes. At the Bottom of the River is a highly subjective treatment of the growth of a young girl from Antigua who has to separate herself from a close relationship with her mother, while Annie John is an attempt to present the same material to an audience in a more objective manner—though still in the first person and still with many subjective impressions.
Like the earlier work, Annie John is difficult to classify precisely by genre. While it has the unity and structure of a novel, the eight individual chapters are all self-contained short stories. The point of view remains consistent in each chapter, the chapters taken together tell a consecutive narrative, and, while knowledge of earlier chapters is not essential to an appreciation of later ones, the stories build on one another, allowing readers to find connections and themes between the individual stories.
In the first chapter, “Figures at a Distance,” Annie develops a child’s fascination with death. “For a short while during the year I was ten,” the chapter begins, “I thought only people I did not know died.” Her awareness that anyone, even someone she knows, even a child, can die is her first glimmer of her own mortality, and she starts attending funerals of people she does not know simply out of her fascination with death. When Annie’s interest in death leads her to imagine herself dead and to imagine her father, who builds coffins, so overcome with grief that he is unable to build one for her, it becomes clear that this interest in death is also the beginning of a separation from her parents. This process of separation has only begun, however, as the chapter’s ending shows: Annie’s mother punishes Annie when, fascinated by the funeral of a girl she knew, Annie forgets to buy fish for dinner. The mother, however, relents on a threat not to kiss Annie goodnight. The identification between mother and daughter has been questioned but not yet seriously threatened.
It is in the second chapter, “The Circling Hand,” that Annie first begins to glimpse the truth that she and her mother are separate beings and, worse (for her), that her mother will expect Annie to define herself as separate from her mother. The mother wants Annie to form her own separate identity but also wants to control the terms on which this identity is established. Annie has always worn dresses patterned after her mother’s, but it is now time for Annie to start dressing differently; similarly, her mother shows Annie one way to store linen but then adds, “Of course, in your own house you might choose another way.” In both these cases, the mother is encouraging Annie to establish her identity within a limited sphere of domestic life but not to go beyond it. The title of the chapter comes from an incident in which Annie comes home from church and spies her mother and father making love; the circling hand of the title is her mother’s hand on her father’s back. This scene marks an end to Annie’s feelings that she wants to identify with her mother, and the beginning of a more mutually antagonistic phase of their relationship.
The chapters “Gwen” and “The Red Girl” both focus on schoolgirls on whom Annie briefly forms intense crushes. The story behind “Gwen” is more broadly the story of Annie’s entrance into school and adolescence. A composition Annie writes and is asked to read the first day of school makes her instantly popular, and by the end of the day she is best friends with Gweneth Joseph, a classmate. By the end of the story, however, when Annie has begun menstruating, she realizes she no longer feels quite so close to Gwen, and she also acknowledges strong resentments toward her mother.
In “The Red Girl,” Annie’s conflict with her mother grows. Her friendship with the Red Girl is more daring than her relationship with Gwen. She and the Red Girl climb a lighthouse together, decide to make the lighthouse their secret hiding place, and meet there every day, until Annie’s mother punishes Annie for playing marbles. Annie consistently lies about playing marbles, and this becomes a wedge between her and her mother, because her mother does not believe her. Eventually, the Red Girl is sent away to finish her schooling elsewhere; a more serious split, however, has developed between Annie and her mother, a split that will grow with the passing of time.
This relationship reaches a crisis in the chapter titled “The Long Rain,” when Annie, for no apparent physical reason, gets very weak and has to take to her bed. At the same time, it begins to rain outside, and it rains fairly steadily the entire time Annie is sick. During this time, Annie does not so much hear the words people speak to her as she sees them, and she sometimes sees them fall dead before they reach her. After the medicines of the local doctor and Ma Jolie, a local conjure woman, fail to help Annie, Annie’s maternal grandmother, Ma Chess, recognized as the most powerful conjure woman in the area, arrives unannounced to take charge of Annie. For several months, Ma Chess sleeps in Annie’s room and feeds and tends her personally, and for those months, the weather remains damp and rainy. When Annie is finally better, she has grown significantly taller and needs a new school uniform. Symbolically, she has become a new, adult person.
The final chapter in the novel, “A Walk to the Jetty,” describes Annie’s last morning in Antigua as she prepares to leave for England, where she plans to study to be a nurse. In a poignantly told account, Annie’s thoughts touch on many of the people and events seen in earlier chapters, including her truncated friendship with the Red Girl and her failed friendship with Gwen (whom she now considers a bit of an embarrassment). Though the story is infused with the pain that such leave-taking often implies, it is clear that Annie has grown in ways that make this separation from her mother necessary. On the deck of the ship, Annie waves farewell until her mother disappears from sight. Although the story is a parting, it is also a gathering together of self for Annie, as she sets out to become more fully the adult person that has been emerging slowly throughout the novel.