In the Black Room of the World

The Autobiography of My Mother

by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 228 pp., $20.00

Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid; drawing by David Levine

You could think of Jamaica Kincaid’s first book, At the Bottom of the River (1983), a collection of stories, as an early exhibition of the essential materials that would go into the novels that followed: Caribbean childhood, domestic activity, fascination with sensation, unquiet memories of mother. Taken together the stories read like tone poems or symbolist exercises. What draws a line under them as apprentice work is Kincaid’s crowded, poetic language, while in her later fictions there are few big words. She has no need for them, she can suggest intricate landscapes, actual or psychological, without them. What Kincaid retains from that maiden voyage out is a use of the first-person narrative voice that has the quality, beyond style and personality, of a hypnotic presence.

Kincaid’s voice in all her books has a way of turning the reader into a spectator. Her narrator will tell a story but will not surrender it. The story belongs only to the narrator. It can be witnessed but not shared. Most narrators try to appeal to or seduce or please the reader, but Kincaid’s voice is a kind of challenging display—rather cold, unconcerned with giving offense, unapologetic in its self-absorption as a form of self-possession.

Annie John (1985) tells of a young woman’s coming of age on Antigua, where daily life is regulated by the strokes of the Anglican church bell. Annie’s carpenter father goes off to work and she helps her mother around the house. The chores and marketing, Annie’s learning how to do things, are under the elegant authority of her mother. However, this time of closeness to her mother, of bathing together, of leaning against her and smelling rose or bay leaf in her hair as she talks, of feeling sheltered by and included in her parents’ laughter at meals, ends with adolescence. The appearance of tufts under her arms, the change in the smell of her perspiration, the shock of menstruation, and the elongation of her legs signal the start of “this lady business.” Her mother’s new instructions and reproachful vigilance Annie interprets as aggressive expressions of estrangement. She answers what she regards as rejection by her mother with her own betrayals. Popularity at her girls’ school, the manipulation of teachers and classmates, means deceit at home, petty thievery, obstinacy, and lying, developed as skills.

The changes in Annie’s body and temperament that her mother attempts either to control or to correct mask a secret, a resolve hidden in the outwardly respectful decision to go to England to study to be a nurse. Annie recalls that had anyone asked her to sum up her life until then, the life she did not want to go on with, she would have said in part:

And so now there they are together and here I am apart. I don’t see them now the way I used to, and I don’t love them…

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