The Struggles of Annie John

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996

Critics often characterize Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John as a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age narrative that traces the protagonist's quest for both self-knowledge and a distinct place in the world.

Such a description proves apt for Kincaid's largely autobiographical novel, since her work revolves around a series of conflicts related to her young protagonist's search for emotional stability and self-definition. Growing up worshiping her mother and living in a nurturing, almost blissful environment, Annie loses a secure sense of herself with the advent of puberty and her mother's insistence on emotional separation.

In addition to Annie's familial life, Kincaid also explores the cultural dynamics of Antigua through Annie's confrontations with the island's colonial legacy and her depictions of persistent African belief systems.

By focusing the work through Annie's eyes, Kincaid allows the reader intimate access to Annie's attempts to define herself in relation to others and to her culture. Yet despite this point of view and the lyrical, evocative style of Annie's narration, Kincaid does not romanticize Annie's conflicts or strain for reader sympathy. Instead, Kincaid insists on honestly portraying Annie's multiple reactions to her dilemmas, whether they evoke the reader's compassion or reproach. By doing so, she invites the reader to share her mam character's negotiation of her turbulent adolescence and to witness the slow, painful development of inner resources that allow her to embark on a journey into the unknown.

Throughout the novel, Annie's relationship with her mother remains at the heart of her most pressing conflicts. The older Annie who narrates the book describes her early years as Edenic, with only fleeting doubts to interfere with her intense love for her mother. In fact, basking in her mother's attention, Annie recognizes the "paradise" of her existence and pities those people who lack such love.

Soon, however, Annie becomes one of these people herself when she enters puberty. Recognizing the end of her daughter's childhood, Annie's mother forces her to move beyond their close relationship, to begin the process of becoming independent. Yet Annie is not prepared for such a sudden transition and what it implies about her future. Confused over her bodily changes and in need of reassurance, she instead finds, in her eyes, betrayal.

Her most troubling and significant moment of transition comes when she unwittingly discovers her mother's sexuality. Returning early from Sunday school, Annie finds her parents making love and focuses her feelings of betrayal on her mother's hand. Horrified, Annie sees the hand as "white and bony, as if it had been left out in the elements. It seemed not to be her hand, and yet it could only be her hand, so well did I know it. It went around and around in the same circular motion [on Annie's father's back], and I looked at it as if I would never see anything else in my life again."

For Annie, the hand that had nurtured her and was always full of life and strength now appears dead as she recognizes her exclusion from her parents' lives. She no longer resides within the comforting "circle" of her mother's hand and is figuratively expelled from her Eden.

After this time, Annie's feelings for her mother remain intense, but they are twisted toward anger, hatred, and mistrust. Annie never stops loving her mother, despite her youthful assertions to the contrary, but she cannot recover the purity of the love she felt in her early youth, and she remains ever cognizant of this loss.

Annie soon finds a partial means of filling this emotional void: friendships with girls her own age. While Annie enjoys being a leader among her peers, she saves her most intense feelings for her private relationships.

With Gwen Joseph and, later, the Red Girl, she often keeps herself apart from the other girls. Such isolation emulates, however incompletely, her childhood feelings of being a privileged extension of her mother. Her ardent friendship with Gwen, for instance, clearly functions as a substitute for Annie's lost maternal relationship. Like Annie's mother, Gwen is neat and self-controlled, and she also makes Annie the center of her world, which Annie craves. Yet, like a Lucifer who was expelled from Heaven (to whom Annie refers later in the book), Annie ultimately embraces rebellion as the means to reconcile herself to her exile from her mother's affections.

Hence her attraction toward the Red Girl, who represents the opposite of what Annie's mother values. She bathes and changes clothes only once a week, does not attend Sunday school, and plays the forbidden game of marbles. Free from rigid parental dictates and constraints, which Annie wants to be, the Red Girl becomes the embodiment of Annie's resistance to parental authority. By playing marbles with the Red Girl and then lying about it to her mother, Annie asserts an independence won through deception, which she sees as the only means open to her.

Yet Annie's open rebellions against her mother, while they help define her independence, they also highlight Annie's continuing reliance on her mother for guidance. Ironically, to assert her own break with (and hurt) her mother, she models her behavior on what she has learned from her mother. In the contest of wills over the marbles, for instance, Annie adopts negative characteristics like subterfuge and manipulation that she believes her mother uses against her.

Kincaid further portrays this element of their relationship through her use of the trunk. For Annie as a child, her mother's trunk was a symbol of familial intimacy and her own significance, since her mother would recount Annie's youth by describing the history of its contents. It also betokened strength and independence, since her mother used it when escaping her childhood home. After a caustic argument, Annie requests her own trunk, a gesture that stresses her desire to overthrow her mother's influence. What Annie does not acknowledge, however, is her evident desire to emulate her mother. By requesting a trunk, she chooses her mother's method of rebellion against unwanted parental control and places herself on the path to independence that her mother has tread before her.

While familial conflicts are central to Annie's maturation and self-discovery, they alone do not shape her character. Kincaid also emphasizes the impact of cultural forms and attitudes on Annie, and Annie's reaction to them helps the reader understand the sense of self she is developing.

Running throughout the book are features of English influence, such as the Anglican church, English holidays, Annie's British textbooks, and even her middle name, Victoria. Annie recognizes her colonial status, but such knowledge does not lead her to feel inferior. In fact, she considers her slave heritage as a moral strength in comparison to the English colonizers, upon whose graves she and her friends daily walk.

Indeed, Annie is overtly contemptuous of the European colonizing mentality that enabled the Spanish and English to enslave others for their own aggrandizement. Contrary to her teachers, she does not revere Columbus and particularly relishes the picture of him as a captive in a ship. She underscores her enjoyment at his humbling by writing "'The Great Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go'" under the picture, drawing the words and sentiment from her mother's statement about her own father's debilitating illness.

Such a renunciation of colonial power parallels, in part, her attempts to reject parental authority. As with her familial relationships, she chafes at the implied cultural constraints that European institutions and attitudes have placed upon her. She cannot, however, completely escape them, as revealed by her love for the British novel Jane Eyre, her writing in Old English script under Columbus's picture, and her ultimate voyage to England itself. In fact, while her insolence toward colonial symbols reflects her desire for autonomy, it also reveals her need to combat the continuing hold of the colonizer's views on her own self-definitions.

A more substantial form of resistance to European influence seems to come from the African cultural traditions still thriving in Antigua. Kincaid shows that the colonial figures in the work justify to themselves the degradation of others by privileging rationality and science over emotion and mystery.

In direct opposition to this philosophy is obeah, the West Indian descendant of African voodoo practiced by female figures in the book. Obeah involves a belief in transformation, especially of spiritual forms, and embraces the flux of the natural world rather than trying to control it. These elements of obeah prove particularly relevant to Annie John, since the novel addresses the inescapability of both change and the impulses of nature.

Like the colonial elements of Antigua, obeah beliefs help shape Annie's life and her sense of herself. She makes no distinction, for instance, between the waking world and the dream world, and her mother works to protect their home from outside curses and bad spirits. Annie herself, while she never outwardly embraces obeah practices like her mother and grandmother, never mocks or rejects them. Indeed, they offer her a compelling alternative to colonial belief systems and, perhaps more importantly, form a link to her maternal heritage that helps her through the darkest period in her life.

Annie's extended illness marks her most important transition in the book. The world's treacheries and corruptions seem to force her to retreat into a womb-like existence in which her perception of reality becomes warped. Kincaid accentuates the potency and mysteriousness of this illness by coupling it with a period of continuous rain, as if nature itself were in sympathy with Annie, providing her with the water for her womb environment.

Conventional medicine fails to relieve her condition, and her grandmother, Ma Chess, soon arrives, fearing that Annie has been cursed. Not bound by the strictures of Western rationality and attuned to life's emotional chords, Ma Chess immediately recognizes the true nature of Annie's distress and encourages Annie's return to virtual infancy while tending to her like a mother.

Thus, if only for a short time, Annie finally restores the undivided, nurturing existence she formerly shared with her mother and escapes the pain that has been plaguing her. These experiences seem to prepare her for the next stages in her journey, in which she will strive not to restore previous bonds, but to rend them.

Though she recreates a sense of her former intimacy with her mother, Annie's illness does not relieve her resentment and suspicion. In fact, when she emerges from this state, she feels an even stronger separation from her family and environment and is ready to leave her home.

Her final day on Antigua reflects both her desire to escape and her remorse over another loss in her life. She contemplates her past and her home, and she measures the changes in herself by the stasis she believes she witnesses in others' lives, like her parents and Gwen.

The final lines in the book, while Annie waits to embark for England, underscore her sense of the fundamental alterations in her life and character: "I could hear the small waves lap-lapping around the ship. They made an unexpected sound, as if a vessel filled with liquid had been placed on its side and now was slowly emptying out." Such imagery proves telling, for Annie, too, is "emptying out" in order to become a vessel for new experiences.

Like the vessel placed on its side, this transformation proves disorienting as well as liberating. She is trying to move beyond her past and beyond her mother's influence in order to redefine (or "refill") herself, but is unsure of what may result. She cannot see who she will become, but she can see who and what she does not want to be.

Like her language and imagery, Annie's character has grown richer and more complex throughout the book, and her journey vividly portrays Kincaid's vision of the necessary and excruciating search for selfhood that, like Annie's quest, is never complete.

Source: Darren Felty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Darren Felty is a visiting instructor at the College of Charleston.

Desperate Hopes, Desperate Lives Depression and Self-Realization in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John and Lucy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2785

On the surface, everything about Annie John suggests the traditional Bildungsroman: it traces the central episodes in the life of a young girl from prepubescent familial bliss to her ambivalent turmoil about her mother and a permanent departure from home at seventeen. Along the way she struggles through alternate moods of embracing and rejecting her parents, the satisfying and troubling subterfuge of social expectations, the awakening of an uneasy sexuality, and the gradual formulation of an internal life that seeks release from the strictures of home and the culture of Antigua.

It is an exciting but painful journey. Essentially, it proves a tragic "coming of age in Antigua," despite the overlay of humor and charm throughout the narrative. The central issue from start to finish is Annie's relationship with her mother. The central image is that of the trunk, one that contained mementos of the mother's youth in Dominica and then comes to hold the treasured reminiscences of every stage of Annie's childhood. It is appropriate that Annie brings a similar trunk with her when she leaves Antigua at seventeen. In the matter of the trunk, as in so much else, Annie's life recalls that of her mother and brings them as close together in their separation as they were on their island. This is an awareness the adult narrator would have that the child would not. It is buttressed by the special irony that although the child Annie sees the mother as a heartless despot, the Annie who narrates portrays "no tyrant but a beautiful, loving woman who adores her only child and is wise enough to wish her daughter independent" [as Charlotte H. Bruner states in World Literature Today 59, 1985]. The act of telling a story of rebellion with such a loving portrait of a mother is, in effect, an act of psychological reconciliation that never achieves material fulfillment. For there is no indication that Annie ever returns home. On one level, she need not, for what her story reveals is the process by which, in striving for independence, she recapitulates the life of her mother. It is no small point that both the child and the mother share the same name, "Annie John."

The book begins with ten-year-old Annie's childhood fascination with death, a subject with somber values set off against the sunny and carefree world of her everyday life. Her conflicts are with the world of the supernatural, with the imponderable causal forces that live in shadow and sign and that wrest a comforting meaning from random events. Her preoccupation with death is a normative fixation and an attempt to understand the most profound developments around her. Beyond the charm of innocent grotesquerie, her fixation offers the revelation of Annie's character and of a lively and creative mind. It reveals also a love for storytelling, an unsentimental confrontation with the most unpleasant realities, and a child's faulty logic that accepts folklore as transcendent reality.

In a sense Annie must reach outward for conflict. The world she lives in, at least on her level of engagement, is prelapsarian, an antediluvian feast of family love and lore. Her mother is not so much long suffering as long rejoicing. She is so in love with her daughter and life as to celebrate even its most minute details, from routine household tasks to the bark she uses to scent Annie's bath water.

Indeed, the artifacts of the young girl's existence speak of adoration. Her father built the house she lives in with his own hands. He even lovingly crafts the furniture in her room, the spoon she eats with, the entire household. It is a brilliant context in which to begin the story: For this caring household is the world that Annie will come to resent and rebel against in her final departure.

Although as narrator she stresses these details, at the time of the action Annie is oblivious to them. She is obsessed instead with her immediate concern for a progression of expirations—from Nalda to Sonia's mother to Miss Charlotte and the humpback girl, whose passing inspires in Annie not compassion but a desire to rap on the hump to see if it is hollow. Even these episodes bring her back under the sway of her mother, however. For it is the latter who tells the stories of death in the family, and it is she who is holding Nalda in her arms when she dies. This tragedy is given cruel interpretation by Annie:

I then began to look at my mother's hands differently. They had stroked the dead girl's forehead; they had bathed and dressed her and laid her in the coffin my father had made.... 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 sail in her lap.

It is the first negative transformation in Annie's attitude toward her mother. Annie begins to visit funeral parlors, an obsession that brings her home late one evening without the fish she was supposed to deliver. She lies about the incident: "That night, as a punishment, I ate my supper outside, alone, under the breadfruit tree, and my mother said that she would not be kissing me good night later, but when I climbed into bed she came and kissed me anyway."

When Annie turns twelve, everything changes. She enters the first stages of the love-hate relationship with her mother that informs the central plot of the narrative [according to Bruner]. Ironically, it is not the terrors of death that lead to the schism but the act that brought her life: she discovers her parents making love and is revolted. To provide a context for this event, the narrator sketches a background of familial closeness, how mother and daughter would bathe together in water scented with flowers and oils. Annie tells of her mother's departure from Dominica with the trunk and of the many times the mother later removed Annie's things from it, caressing each item as an emblem of her daughter's previous growth: "As she held each thing in her hand she would tell me a story about myself." In contrast, the father's background is rich in love of a more perverse and complex variety. He has loved and abandoned a series of women, leaving several with children he does not now acknowledge. This is a fact that hangs over their lives, seeking expiation. Abandoned as a small child, he grew up with his grandmother, sleeping with her until he was eighteen, when she died. The father weeps when he relates this story, and Annie experiences a sudden growth of sensibility in her compassion for him.

The turning point for Annie comes when her mother informs her that it is time for her to have her own clothes, not simply imitations of her mother's dresses. Annie is shocked at this demand for her discrete identity: "To say that I felt the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far." Here Annie would seem to be confronting the classic confusion of a girl in her relationship with her mother: She desires the closest possible identification and shows distress when the mother suggests any degree of separation...Her mother exhibits disgust at Annie's many lies, but the event from which their relationship never recovers is the parental sex scene, particularly the image of her mother's hand, making a circular motion, on her husband's back. It proves an imagistic referent that lends the title "The Circling Hand," indicating that it is the preeminent event. This image is invested with Annie's confrontation with adult sexuality, a development that will prove more difficult for her than the discovery of death. In the absence of siblings, Annie must share love with the "other" parent, a fact that inspires not rivalry toward her father, but a bitter resentment of her mother: "I was sure I could never let those hands touch me again; I was sure I could never let her kiss me again. All that was finished." In her place, Annie proclaims her love for a schoolmate, Gwen, and this and other surrogate loves sustain her through the break with her mother.

Annie's ambivalence toward her mother intensifies in the second chapter devoted to Annie at twelve; the implication is that the year was pivotal in her development. Annie is in a new school, and much of the chapter is a description of a typical school day. Yet the salient dimensions of the episode deal with Annie's growing maturity. There is here a nostalgic look back at the unconditional love she has received throughout her childhood from her mother, as well as her compelling need to move beyond the family to the larger social world around her. The key document is an autobiographical essay she writes in school. In it she describes swimming with her mother and the profound sense of isolation and abandonment she feels when her mother momentarily slips from view. Annie is not simply puzzled or startled; she experiences a momentary crisis of being: "A huge black space then opened up in front of me and I fell inside it...I couldn't think of anything except that my mother was no longer near me." When her mother sees her crying, she hugs her closely and promises never to leave her again, but Annie is left with the sensation of abandonment.

The depth of Annie's dependence and antipathy here adumbrates the more exaggerated passage she will make through her dark night of the soul in the penultimate chapter. Yet even now there are pathological implications to the depth of her emotion. That these events are juxtaposed with an account of her first menstruation is also important in that Annie's struggle toward emotional maturity is linked to her biological coming of age. Similarly, the intensification of Annie's love for Gwen is set against the diminution of her love for her mother, a diminution that continues until Annie reflects that "I could not understand how she could be so beautiful even though I no longer loved her."

From this point on every episode contains another expression of Annie's continuing rebellion and of her substitution of other emotional alliances for the close bond she formerly shared with her mother. Soon these ideas take the form of Annie's stealing and lying and playing marbles, all forbidden activities. There is also her infatuation with the Red Girl, who is the personification of familial anarchy in that she refuses to bathe more than once a week. Gwen, the socially correct young lady who has Annie's mother's full approval, is replaced by the Red Girl, who is free from convention and discipline: "Oh, what an angel she was, and what a heaven she lived in!" That this expression of betrayal contains portions of both pain and pleasure is expressed in Annie's relationship with the Red Girl. The latter pinches Annie and then kisses the injured spots: "Oh, the sensation was delicious— the combination of pinches and kisses." That all of this activity takes place at a time commensurate with the previous chapter becomes clear when Annie starts to menstruate, the second rendering of that event in the book. Once again it is a transitional event in that it coincides with the departure of the Red Girl and the cessation of playing marbles. But through this episode Annie has expanded the terrain of her rebellion. Embracing forbidden friends, and violating the most sacred shibboleths of social behavior, she masks her true nature behind a conventional facade. This double life will come to exact its bounty.

In "Somewhere, Belgium," a title derived from an escape fantasy, Annie has turned fifteen and has entered into a deep depression, the etiology of which would seem to be an emotional schism. Many aspects of her life are warm and protective. These include the stories of her father's youth and the many objects around her crafted by his own hands, as well as the familiar story of Annie's mother leaving home at her age. But on another level, Annie's already tenuous circumstances have grown worse. Promoted two grades, she is no longer in the same class with Gwen. Their relationship falters while at the same time the younger Annie suffers in the company of older girls well into adolescence. Her own hesitant steps toward courtship all end badly, even the games she plays with neighborhood boys; in each instance her mother expresses not so much outrage as disgust. When she stops on the way home to flirt with one of the boys from her youth, her mother observes the event and later accuses her of behaving like a slut. Her words move Annie to say "like mother like daughter" and the mother to respond that "until this moment, in my whole life I knew without a doubt that, without an exception, I loved you best."

Annie becomes deeply torn: she is filled with a sense of her mother's love for her, which moves her to tears; at the same time she wishes the older woman were dead. Their duplicitous relationship— outward harmony concealing a deep inner antipathy—is now an obstacle to any integration of self for Annie: "I could not be sure whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world." Annie needs desperately to be part of the rest of the world, hence the fantasy about escaping to Belgium.

These unresolved conflicts lead to Annie's dark night of the soul at fifteen, a sleep that continues throughout a long rain of more than three months. Caused by no discoverable physical illness, Annie's sleep is a mechanism to escape emotional irresolution. It is also an episode that allows for one last family summation, even the mysterious appearance of the maternal grandmother, who comes, still dressed in black since the death of her son decades before, with ritual cures and potions. It is clear, however, that the causative factor does not lend itself to these cures nor to those of Western medicine: "I looked inside my head. A black thing was lying down there, and it shut out all my memory of the things that had happened to me." This illness resembles in many respects the archetypal pathology in the female Bildungsroman: "Sleep and quiescence in female narratives represent a progressive withdrawal into the symbolic landscapes of the innermost self...Excluded from active participation in culture, the fictional heroine is thrown back on herself [according to Marianne Hirsch in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, 1983]. In this case, however, Annie's conflict results less from the problems of acculturation than from the more fundamental issue of growing up in her family.

Annie's illness takes her back through the progression of her life, with her parents' tender solicitations; they treat her like an infant, seeing to her every need. The complexity of her feelings toward her parents is omnipresent, as when Ma Jolie suggests that the cause of the illness may be the curses of the women Annie's father abandoned. Other familial objects also possess a negative resonance for her, as does the photograph of her in her communion dress, wearing shoes her mother had forbidden. It was another confrontation that had led Annie to wish her mother dead. Annie's need to break free of the constraints of this heritage is exemplified by her washing the images off the family photographs, except for her own portrait and that of the forbidden shoes. All of this is consistent with the theories of Nancy Chodorow, who postulates [in Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, 1978] that

mothers feel ambivalent toward their daughters, and react to their daughters' ambivalence toward them. They desire both to keep daughters close and push them into adulthood. This ambivalence in turn creates more anxiety in their daughters and provokes attempts by these daughters to break away.

The illness does not abate, however, until Annie begins to realize that she never wants to see her mother again, that her world has become an "unbearable burden." As soon as she is able to articulate this awareness, she quickly recovers. It has been a transforming respite, one that leads to the resolution of the book m the last chapter.

Source: James Nagel, "Desperate Hopes, Desperate Lives Depression and Self-Realization in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John and Lucy," in Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel Since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 237-53.

Up from Eden

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"Write what you know," says the experienced author to the younger one. Hence the critic's 10-mile bookshelf of breathless first novels about growing up normal: meager accounts, bitter, adoring, or pompous, of parents and school; death and love; television, baseball, dry or wet dreams. Jamaica Kincaid's first novel is not, thank the Muse, one of these: instead, it is one of those perfectly balanced wanderings through time which seem to spring direct from Nature. The parents and school, death and love are there, but oh, with what a difference, and 148 pages become 300 when you read a book twice. In her collection of stories, At the Bottom of the River, and here, in Annie John, Kin-caid does write what she knows. What she knows is rare: pure passion, a past filled with curious events, a voice, humor, and above all a craft.

Ten-year-old Annie John lives in a paradise: a backyard in Antigua overseen by a benevolent goddess—her mother. "That summer, we had a pig that had just had piglets; some guinea fowl; and some ducks that laid enormous eggs that my mother said were big even for ducks. I hated to eat any food except for the enormous duck eggs, hard-boiled. I had nothing to do every day except to feed the birds and the pig in the morning and in the evening. I spoke to no one other than my parents..." Into this Eden come twin serpents: death and separation from the mother. At first they seem innocent. From the yard, Annie observes, with curiosity, "various small, sticklike figures, some dressed in black, some dressed in white, bobbing up and down in the distance": mourners at a child's funeral. Gradually, death comes closer. One day, an acquaintance dies, a deformed girl. "On hearing that she was dead, I wished I had tapped the hump to see if it was hollow." Annie surreptitiously views the corpse and then lies about it to her mother. This is the first in a series of evasions for which she is punished.

Until now, Annie and her mother were almost one. They wore dresses cut from the same cloth; they went shopping together; they even bathed together. "Sometimes it was just a plain bath...Other times, it was a special bath in which the barks and flowers of many different trees, together with all sorts of oils, were boiled in the same large mother would bathe different parts of my body; then she would do the same to herself." They took these baths after her mother and an obeah woman had interpreted the world's signals: "the way a dog she knew, and a friendly dog at that, suddenly turned and bit her; how a porcelain bowl she had earned from one eternity and hoped to carry into the next suddenly slipped out of her capable hands and broke into pieces the size of grains of of the many women my father had loved, had never married, but with whom he had had children was trying to harm my mother and me by setting bad spirits on us." Occasionally the pair would spend a gorgeous afternoon lingering over the objects in Annie's trunk—objects redolent of a shared past which seemed to promise to continue always.

But one day the mother cuts Annie a dress of fabric different from her own; this shock precipitates a slow decline in their relationship. They still keep the appearance of unity, but it's hypocritical: their smiles are false, and mask the most intimate kinds of treachery. The full break comes when Annie reaches puberty. She is now a stranger even to herself. Everything about her, from her nose to her habit of lying, is a mostly unpleasant surprise. This alienation worsens into disease, and ultimately into a total break with Antigua.

Derek Walcott has a poem, "Love After Love," in which he prophesies to himself, and we listen in: "The time will come / when, with elation, / you will greet yourself arriving / at your own door, in your own mirror, / and each will smile at the other's welcome..." The poem closes with a command. "Peel your own image from the mirror. / Sit. Feast on your life." Though Annie John replaces her mother with different objects of desire, first with the conventional schoolgirl Gwen and then with the wild Red Girl, she never does realize that both are reflections of herself, never experiences elation, except at her impending escape, and never feasts on her life—though Jamaica Kincaid does.

At the end of the book, Annie has just gone through a long illness. Having been treated by both doctors and obeah women, she rises from her sickbed several inches taller than her mother—that many inches farther from Eden. She decides to leave Antigua and become a nurse. As Annie embarks for England, the mother hugs her fiercely and declares, "in a voice that raked across my skin, 'It doesn't matter what you do or where you go, I'll always be your mother and this will always be your home.'" Annie hides her revulsion and goes to lie down in her berth, where "everything trembled as if it had a spring at its very center. I could hear the small waves lap-lapping around the ship. They made an unexpected sound, as if a vessel filled with liquid had been placed on its side and now was slowly emptying out."

The past always threatens to contain the future; it's impossible for the future to break free while still embraced by the past. The daughter must tell her mother, "No, I am not you; I am not what you made me," and this, whether truth or a lie, precipitates sexuality, originality, an honest relationship to personal truth. Annie is clearly an autobiographical figure, not perhaps in specific detail, but certainly in her internal development, her emotions, the tempering of her mind, the changes in her image from within the skin. How has Kincaid broken free? How has she acknowledged her past? First novelists usually try to cope with their heritage: Kincaid has had to encompass two traditions. This has been the plaint, and the strength, of writers from the West Indies—both black, like George Lamming, and white, like Jean Rhys. In her two books, Kincaid makes an impressive start, fusing folk tale with novel, poetry with fiction, West Indian locutions and rhythms with "European" ones. She has proven herself to be a big, exotic fish in a small, brightly colored pond—the personal interior narrative. It will be interesting to see what happens once she throws herself into the ocean.

Politics, colonial history, the theme of expatriation: these would be natural extensions for Kincaid. Like an old-time cartographer, she seems to avoid some territory. "There be dragons here." In one scene, Annie defaces a picture of Christopher Columbus by scrawling an inscription in Old English-style lettering. She is caught by her prunes-and-persimmons teacher. Her punishment? To copy out part of John Milton's Paradise Lost. The white teacher, who equates Columbus practically with God, the old English lettering, Annie's hatred of Columbus and his so-called "discovery"—all these are literary plums ripe for the plucking.

There are many ways in which Kincaid could arrange the plums in her particular literary dish. She could walk farther down her folkways or, like George Lamming in his 1953 In the Castle of My Skin, further relate her experience to "universal" mythic history:

The scent of the air filled the nostrils and the ears and the eyes so that everything smelt and looked and felt like iodine and raw fish and the liquid of the grape leaf...Bob arched his back and we heard the syllables stumbing past his lips. 'Sea Come No Further, Sea Come No Further.' His voice went out like the squeak of an insect to meet the roar of the wave

What the waves erase here, other than the boys' toeprints, are the imaginary footprints of King Canute.

Kincaid could also give up her Eden. At the Bottom of the River and Annie John are wonderful books, but they are, in subject, very much alike. These books epitomize elegy to a particular place and state of being, an impulse which can only sustain itself so long before it becomes redundant. For most writers, personal interior vision is not enough to precipitate a full break from the past. It is significant that the happiest moments in Annie John are moments of stasis:

Soon after, I started to menstruate, and I stopped playing marbles. I never saw the Red Girl again. For a reason not having to do with me, she had been sent to Anguilla to live with her grandparents and finish her schooling. The night of the day I heard about it, I dreamed of her...I took her to an island, where we lived together forever, I suppose, and fed on wild pigs and sea grapes. At night, we would sit on the sand and watch ships filled with people on a cruise steam by. We sent confusing signals to the ships, causing them to crash on some nearby rocks. How we laughed as their cries of joy turned to cries of sorrow.

With Annie John, Kincaid has completed the themes begun in River. The two are companion volumes: an object lesson in showing how far a writer's technique can stretch. River seemed to be dictated straight from heart to hand, almost bypassing the mind. The voice in "Girl," for example, quoted first mother, then daughter, in a rhythm so strong it seemed to be hypnosis, aimed at magically chanting out bits of the subconscious. Now Annie John fills in between the bits; it gives the passions of River a rationale. The surreality, imagination, internal and external detail are still there, but they now flow in a single narrative wave.

Kincaid's subject so interesting that her style, sumptuous as it is, becomes transparent. She is a consummate balancer of feeling and craft. She takes no short or long cuts, breathes no windy pomposities: she contents herself with being direct. The reader feels that even if this writer had had the bad luck to be born elsewhere, she would have made it as wonderful as "her" Antigua.

Cynthia Ozick, Mary Gordon, and Susan Sontag have sighed over Kincaid's virtuosity with language, and they were right. Her language recalls Henri Rousseau's painting: seemingly natural, but in reality sophisticated and precise. So lush, composed, direct, odd, sharp, and brilliantly lit are Kincaid's word paintings that the reader's presuppositions are cut in two by her seemingly soft edges. Her wisdom, measured craft, and reticence will carry her on to more complicated and wider canvases, to larger geographies of the mind.

Source: Jacqueline Austin, "Up from Eden," in Voice Literary Supplement, Vol 34, April, 1985, pp. 6-7.

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Critical Overview