Many readers and critics had long suspected that Jamaica Kincaid’s fiction was highly autobiographical, and the publication of My Brother, which was nominated for a National Book Award for nonfiction, confirmed those suspicions. Ostensibly inspired by the death of her younger brother Devon Drew from AIDS in 1996, this memoir is most striking for the way that Kincaid presents her own memories and thoughts about her family in light of this tragedy. While her relationship to Devon, who was just three when Kincaid left Antigua in 1966, is important to the book, it’s her corrosive and wounded relationship to her mother that readers will remember.
My Brother has been widely praised, and occasionally criticized, for its striking style. Kincaid’s sentences are full of short blunt words, but they’re intricately constructed, often circling back on themselves in such a way that they mimic the disorderly way that human beings recall their most unsettling memories. Another hallmark of the book is its disarming honesty. Kincaid doesn’t shy away from difficult feelings, anger chief among them. Devon’s unhappy life is, Kincaid believes, the one she might have lived had she not left Antigua for The United States. Anna Quindlen, writing in the New York Times, observes: ‘‘Ultimately that is what that memoir is about, about the chasm between the self we might have been and the one that we have somehow, often inexplicably, become. It is about leaving, and leaving people behind, about being a stranger in your own home, to your own family.’’
Kincaid sets the pace for the nonlinear story she tells in the opening paragraph when she describes first visiting Devon in the Gweneth O’Reilly ward of the Holberton Hospital, where he was said to be dying of AIDS; she then skips immediately to the circumstances of his birth. The ostensible connection between these thoughts is tenuous at best: Devon is the only one of Kincaid’s mother’s four children who was not born in a hospital. The logic of this leap makes increasing sense as the reader learns to follow Kincaid’s idiosyncratic and winding thought processes.
Kincaid describes having distanced herself from her family only to have been drawn back into their orbit by her brother’s illness. She reminisces about her family, especially her mother, discussing everything from her mother’s dislike of her daughter’s faculty for remembering to her mother’s skill at gardening. She talks of the sorry state of health care in Antigua, the dirtiness of the Holberton Hospital, and the isolation of AIDS patients. At one point, Kincaid thinks that something good has come of Devon’s illness: it’s made her realize she loves him. She tells Devon of her love, and he responds in kind.
Kincaid procures the AIDS drug AZT for Devon, and he soon begins to recover and eventually leaves the hospital. But wellness is not a perfectly happy state for him. While Devon was hospitalized, his oldest brother, Joe, moved into his house. Devon returns home to live with his mother, sharing a bed with her. Kincaid also learns that Devon is having unprotected sex with a woman who doesn’t know of his disease and that he is drinking beer every night. This section ends as Kincaid learns that her brother is once again ill.
The opening words of this section summarize what’s to come: ‘‘My brother died.’’ And yet Devon does not die in the simple terms that Kincaid first suggests with that three-word sentence. Instead, his death is relived many times, from different perspectives. First, Kincaid describes the last time she saw her brother alive. She then recalls the moment that she learns he has died. Having returned home from a trip to Miami, she checks on her sleeping children, Harold and Annie, and they ask her to climb into bed with them and snuggle. She falls...
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