Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590

Some critics have found difficulty in placing At the Bottom of the River within a particular genre or in making sense of the book other than to describe it as the sensory impressions, dreams, and memories of a girl growing up during the waning of British colonialism. Yet carefully following Kincaid’s concerns with language, power, identity, and metamorphosis can lead to interesting and rich readings.

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Merging form and content, Kincaid fragments language to mirror the fragments of a constructed postcolonial world. The hypnotic cadence of biblical commandments is heard in the mother’s commands in “Girl.” “This, then, is the terrain” opens the title piece and echoes the voice of Creation in Genesis, and statements beginning with “I saw” recall the prophetic visions in Revelation. Catalogs like those of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) replace conventional narrative. References to circus performer Tom Thumb, the metric system, and Christopher Columbus are taken from government school texts, while jablesses and zombis are borrowed from obeah.

These forces threaten to annihilate the narrator; the Bible and Paradise Lost authorize her death. Although obeah allows the dead to return to the living, zombis furtively try to usher the living to their own macabre limbo. Even the mother may consume the daughter’s identity. In “The Letter from Home,” a mother’s writing so strikingly resembles the narrator’s own language elsewhere that it acts not simply as a communiqué from home, but as a sign of the passing over of language—the “letter”—and identity from mother to daughter. In the middle of this letter, a man asks “‘Will [the children] bear their mother’s name?’” To “bear” means to carry on but also to withstand. The question becomes, can the narrator assume her mother’s identity at the expense of her own?

In spite of how final these texts seem in their authority, transcendence can occur through metamorphosis, which the narrator sees as a process in nature. Metamorphosis can be fearful. A harmless bird might really be a woman who sheds her skin and drinks her enemies’ blood. A mosquito is reduced to a stain on the wall as death transforms pulsating nature into dread stillness. A mood changes a loving mother into a scaly reptile with...

(The entire section contains 590 words.)

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