Annie John is about the complex process of maturation, a child’s transition from the world as circumscribed by parents to a larger one in which parents are no longer central. The process involves recognizing one’s mortality. Annie, intrigued by death, first watches mourners in a cemetery, then, unknown to her mother, attends funerals of acquaintances as well as of strangers. When her mother prepares a child for burial, Annie is fascinated and repelled by her mother’s hands. Even though her island world is limited, Annie’s coming-of-age experiences are universal: her hesitation and excitement at going to a new school, her boredom with the slow pace of the classes, her concern about making friends, and her devotion to a best friend.
The maturation process also involves coming to terms with the strangeness of one’s own changing body. Meeting secretively among the tombstones, Annie and her friends rub their breasts: They have heard that breasts will grow if a boy massages them and, since they have no contact with boys, they must do the task themselves. Familiar to all young women will be Annie’s surprise at the “small tufts of hair” under her arms and her confused response when she starts menstruating.
The physical changes are small, however, compared to the psychological ones. Annie must travel from a oneness with her mother to a separation from her, from an Edenic childhood to an adolescence fraught with deception, anger, and isolation. She visualizes her profound unhappiness as taking “the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs” and believes that “everything . . . had turned sour,” even her friendship with the beloved Gwen with whom she could not share her sadness: “How to explain to her about the thimble that weighed worlds, and the dark cloud that was like an envelope in which my mother and I were sealed?” The emotional trauma becomes so great that Annie succumbs to a physical illness, replete with high fevers and hallucinations. Her illness mystifies the doctors but is treated with an herb-filled sachet and vials of fluids by Annie’s grandmother and a local obeah woman, both versed in folk remedies. After three months, Annie recovers but feels constricted by the island and her mother. For Annie, the closeness that sustained her in childhood is suffocating her as she matures.
The maturation process involves being aware of one’s culture, but it also means being able to see beyond one’s community to the larger world. The novel paints a vivid picture of the island culture: the daily activities and occupations of the residents; the variety of food ranging from dasheen, figs, and breadfruit to the many edible fish such as angelfish, kanya fish, and lady doctorfish; and the folklore, including the prevalent belief in the spirit world and in the ability of herbs and elixirs to combat evil.
Part of the island’s history is its legacy of racism and colonialism. Annie, in her schoolgirl way, defaces a textbook page with a negative comment about Christopher Columbus, who represents for her exploitation and colonialism. She looks with sadness at a young English classmate, knowing that the girl had to bear the burden of “the terrible things her ancestors had done.” Annie’s understanding of the political world is unusual for one so young.