Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Lucy is the third of Jamaica Kincaid’s books of fiction, following At the Bottom of the River (1983), a collection of short stories, and Annie John (1985), a critically acclaimed novel that was one of three finalists for the 1985 Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. At the Bottom of the River won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Morton Dauwen Zabel Award. Both Annie John and Lucy were published in installments in The New Yorker, but they did not receive critical attention until their publication as books.
Kincaid’s style has changed dramatically from that used in At the Bottom of the River, which gave little attention to setting, character development, or chronological sequencing of events. Her two novels provide a much more solid foundation in all three of those areas, making them more easily understood.
Both Annie John and Lucy are fictionalized accounts of the author’s own life. Annie John is a coming-of-age novel ending with the title character’s departure from the West Indies. Although not a sequel, Lucy details the life of the title character at the ages of nineteen and twenty. Many of the incidents in it happened to the author during her first few years in the United States.
Most critics agree that the author has made a strong contribution to African American literature. The renowned African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has commented on Kincaid’s work:She never feels the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world or a female sensibility. She assumes them both. I think it’s a distinct departure that she’s making, and I think that more and more black American writers will assume their world the way she does. So that we can get beyond the large theme of racism and get to the deeper themes of how black people love and cry and live and die. Which, after all, is what art is all about.
All three books, along with a much-anthologized short piece entitled “Girl,” written in 1978 and appearing in At the Bottom of the River, have found favor among critics and scholars. In general, Jamaica Kincaid’s novels speak to the common desire to break away from the past and become a new person, one who is strong and independent. The difficulty inherent in such a project is clearly represented in these autobiographical works.