Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

Because "Girl" and several other Kincaid stories had first been published in the influential magazine The New Yorker, when Kincaid's collection At the Bottom of the River came out in 1983 it attracted more critical attention than volumes of short stories usually do, particularly for a writer's first book. Early reviewers were drawn to the language of the stories, though some were put off by the overall obscurity. Anne Tyler, writing for The New Republic, praised the stories for Kincaid's ‘‘care for language, joy in the sheer sound of words, and evocative power.’’ Edith Milton, in The New York Times Book Review, also cited the language, ‘‘which is often beautifully simple, [and] also adopts a gospel-like seriousness, reverberating with biblical echoes and echoes of biblical echoes.'' Both writers commented briefly on "Girl" and its theme of the mother-daughter relationship, and David Leavitt, writing for The Village Voice, proclaimed, ‘‘The tangled love between child and mother, so clearly articulated in 'Girl,' is the major preoccupation of Kincaid's work.’’

Though impressed by the language and interested in the themes, early reviewers found the stories in At the Bottom of the River needlessly opaque. Tyler called them "often almost insultingly obscure.’’ Milton wondered ‘‘if her imagery may perhaps be too personal and too peculiar to translate into any sort of sensible communication.’’ Barney Bardsley warned in New Statesman that the book could be "irritatingly difficult to read unless you let yourself go.’’ Ultimately, however, all of the national reviewers saw promise in the volume and recommended it.

Since that time, "Girl" has been selected for several important anthologies, including Wayward Girls, Wicked Women: An Anthology of Stories (1987), Green Cane and Juicy Flotsam: Short Stories by Caribbean Women (1991), Images of Women in Literature (1991), and Beyond Gender and Geography: American Women Writers (1994). Most critical work on Kincaid has focused on her first novel, Annie John, considered a richer and more accessible examination of Kincaid's themes.

Kincaid's work has been the subject of two book-length studies, each published in 1994, and each of which analyzes "Girl'' as an early articulation of her central concerns. Moira Ferguson's Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body examines the personal and political conflicts in Kincaid's writing. She finds that in "Girl," "the mother-daughter relationship appears to be framed principally in terms of maternal-colonial power, mixed with probable rage and frustration in the daughter. A polyphony of messages fuses with conflicting reactions.’’ Diane Simmons, author of Jamaica Kincaid, revisits the sound of Kincaid's language noticed by early reviewers and explains how "Girl" "may be read as a kind of primer in the manipulative art of rhythm and repetition." The mother's speech, she believes, "not only manipulates the girl into receptivity to the mother's condemning view but also teaches the art of manipulation.’’

One question that has interested readers of At the Bottom of the River from the beginning is the nature of the pieces. Though many critics have been content to call the pieces "stories," others have looked for a better term. Barney Bardsley claims, ‘‘This is not a story. There is no linear progression, no neat plot. At the Bottom of the River is instead a beautiful chaos of images, murky and tactile, which hint at the dreams and nightmares involved as a girl shakes off her childhood.’’ Tyler writes that ‘‘this book is more poetry than prose.’’ David Leavitt calls them ‘‘prose pieces,’’ and Moira Ferguson consistently calls them "sections." For Simmons they are ‘‘dreamlike stories’’ or ‘‘surrealistic short stories.’’

Kincaid herself has spoken about the voice in her first book. In an interview with Donna Perry she comments, "I can see that At the Bottom of the River was, for instance, a very non-angry, decent, civilized book, and it represents sort of this successful attempt by English people to make their version of a human being or their version of a person out of me. It amazes me now that I did that then. I would never write like that again, I don't think. I might go back to it, but I'm not very interested in that sort of expression any more.’’

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Essays and Criticism