Jamaica Kincaid Long Fiction Analysis
Jamaica Kincaid is known for her impressionistic prose, which is rich with detail presented in a poetic style, her continual treatment of mother-daughter issues, and her relentless pursuit of honesty. More so than many fiction writers, she is an autobiographical writer whose life and art are inextricably woven together. She began her career by mastering the short story, the form from which her longer fiction grew. Most of the pieces that constitute At the Bottom of the River and Annie John were first published in The New Yorker, as were the chapters of Lucy. Though the individual pieces in each work have a self-contained unity, Annie John and Lucy also have a clear continuity from story to story, something less true of the impressionistic writing of At the Bottom of the River; thus At the Bottom of the River is often considered a collection of short stories, whereas Annie John and Lucy are clearly novels. At the Bottom of the River won for Kincaid the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for short fiction; the collection includes “Girl,” a story written as a stream of instructions from a mother to a daughter, which is probably Kincaid’s best-known piece.
Kincaid’s native Antigua is central in her writing. This colonial setting strongly relates to her mother-daughter subject matter, because the narrators of her first two novels—Annie and Lucy, respectively—both seem to make connections between their Anglophile mothers and the colonial English, and also because the childhood experiences of both narrators have been shaped by a colonial background that limits their options and makes their relationships with their mothers that much more intense. Kincaid continues this portrayal of Antigua in Mr. Potter, a novel that uses her father as its subject. Mr. Potter focuses on Roderick Potter and his life as a philandering chauffeur. The narrator of the story, Annie Cynthia Potter, sparked by anger and obligation, examines the life of her detached father by revealing the conditions of his stoic upbringing and links his story with that of the larger community.
Mr. Potter is similar to Lucy, in which Kincaid cultivates a detachment with which she explores issues of anger and loss, carefully disallowing any easy resolution. Kincaid seems less interested in solving fictional problems than in exploring contrary states of mind that perceive problems. Admittedly, this style is not to everyone’s taste, and even quite a few readers who were seduced by Kincaid’s earlier works were less pleased with Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother. However, even if her incantatory rhythms and her tight focus on bleak, emotional situations in her post-Annie John works are not universally appreciated, few readers deny that Kincaid has an eye for poetic detail and the ability to achieve a shimmering honesty in her prose.
Kincaid’s first novel, Annie John, is about a talented young girl in Antigua who, while growing into early womanhood, must separate herself from her mother. Fittingly, the book begins with a story of Annie’s recognition of mortality at the age of ten. Fascinated by the knowledge that she or anyone could die at any time, she begins to attend the funerals of people she does not know. At one point, she imagines herself dead and her father, who makes coffins, so overcome with grief that he cannot build one for her, a complex image suggesting her growing separation from her family. When, after attending a funeral for a child she did know, Annie neglects to bring home fish, as her mother demanded, her mother punishes her before giving her a good-night kiss. Though the kiss suggests a continued bond between mother and daughter, the next chapter places it in a different context. The title “The Circling Hand” refers to Annie’s mother’s hand on her father’s back when Annie accidentally spies her parents making love. Almost as if in contradiction to the reassuring maternal kiss of the earlier story, this chapter offers the rising specter of sexuality as a threat that will separate mother and daughter. Annie learns not only that she must stop dressing exactly like her mother but also that she must someday be married and have a house of her own. This is beyond Annie’s comprehension.
Though Annie never fully understands this growing distance from her mother, she contributes to it. For instance, when she becomes friends with a girl at school named Gwen, she does not tell her mother. In part, she is transferring her affections to friends as a natural process of growing up, but as the chapters “Gwen” and “The Red Girl” make clear, she is also seeking comfort to ease the pain of her mother’s disapproval. Gwen becomes her best friend, and Annie imagines living with her, but Gwen is replaced briefly in Annie’s affections by the Red Girl, who is a friend and cohort with whom Annie plays marbles, against the wishes of her mother.
The growing separation from her mother comes to a crisis in the chapter “The Long Rain,” when Annie lapses into an extended depression and takes to her bed. When medicine and the cures of a local conjure woman do nothing to help, Annie’s grandmother, Ma Chess, also a conjure woman, moves in with her. The weather remains damp the entire time Annie remains bedridden, and she feels herself physically cut off from other people. When she is finally well enough to return to school, she discovers she has grown so much that she needs a new school uniform; symbolically, she has become a new person. Thus it is that the last chapter, “The Long Jetty,” begins with Annie thinking, “My name is Annie John,” an act of self-naming that is also an act of self-possession. The chapter tells of Annie’s last day in Antigua as she prepares to meet the ship that will take her...
(The entire section is 2425 words.)