Reading for the CaribAThon: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

This week, YouTube book bloggers Comfycozyup and Runwright Reads are hosting a CaribAThon read-along to showcase works by Caribbean authors from 13 independent islands. I can only recall reading one book by a Caribbean author, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, who was born in Dominica. So the CaribAThon seemed like the perfect opportunity to read more books from that part of the world.

There is a brilliant range of titles to choose from. I picked out Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid to start with. And oh wow, what a wonderful read this is.

From the blurb:

Annie John is a haunting and provocative story of a young girl growing up on the island of Antigua. A classic coming-of-age story in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kincaid’s novel focuses on a universal, tragic, and often comic theme: the loss of childhood.

An adored only child, Annie has until recently lived an idyllic life. She is inseparable from her beautiful mother, a powerful presence, who is the very center of the little girl’s existence. Loved and cherished, Annie grows and thrives within her mother’s benign shadow. Looking back on her childhood, she reflects, “It was in such a paradise that I lived.” When she turns twelve, however, Annie’s life changes, in ways that are often mysterious to her. She begins to question the cultural assumptions of her island world; at school she instinctively rebels against authority; and most frighteningly, her mother, seeing Annie as a “young lady,” ceases to be the source of unconditional adoration and takes on the new and unfamiliar guise of adversary. At the end of her school years, Annie decides to leave Antigua and her family, but not without a measure of sorrow, especially for the mother she once knew and never ceases to mourn. “For I could not be sure,” she reflects, “whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world.”

This novella reads like a beautiful prose poem. The main character, Annie, is full of life and puzzlement about the world around her:

“I was afraid of the dead, as was everyone I knew. We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again. Sometimes they showed up in a dream, but that wasn’t so bad, because they usually only brought a warning, and in any case you wake up from a dream. But sometimes they would show up standing under a tree just as you were passing by. Then they might follow you home, and even though they might not be able to come into your house, they might wait for you and follow you wherever you went; in that case, they would never give up until you joined them.”

Kincaid’s writing style is simple and direct, yet piercing and insightful. She writes only what is necessary, but there is a lovely languid rhythm to the narrative which pulls the reader dreamily along.

A key theme is Annie’s relationship with her mother.  When we first meet them, their relationship is strong and close.  Annie loves and admires everything about the amazing woman she is so deeply attached to:

“How important I felt to be with my mother. For many people, their wares and provisions laid out in front of them, would brighten up when they saw her coming and would try hard to get her attention. They would dive underneath their stalls and bring out goods even better than what they had on display. They were disappointed when she held something up in the air, looked at it, turning it this way and that, and then, screwing up her face, said, “I don’t think so,” and turned and walked away—off to another stall to see if someone who only last week had sold her some delicious christophine had something that was just as good. They would call out after her turned back that next week they expected to have eddoes or dasheen or whatever, and my mother would say, “We’ll see,” in a very disbelieving tone of voice. […..]

“As my mother went around preparing our supper, picking up clothes from the stone heap, or taking clothes off the clothes-line, I would sit in a corner of our yard and watch her. She never stood still. Her powerful legs carried her from one part of the yard to the other, and in and out of the house. Sometimes she might call out to me to go and get some thyme or basil or some other herb for her, for she grew all her herbs in little pots that she kept in a corner of our little garden. Sometimes when I gave her the herbs, she might stoop down and kiss me on my lips and then on my neck. It was in such a paradise that I lived.”

But the ties that bind gradually unravel as Annie gets older and we are witness to Annie’s anguish and anger at the changes she experiences in herself, and in her relationships with friends and family.

Jamaica Kincaid has written many other books which I am looking forward to exploring further. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Annie John as a short yet powerful read.

6 thoughts on “Reading for the CaribAThon: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

  1. A very interesting perspective, Liz. One that had me looking up Jamaica Kincaid’s biography. Her writing was as if she had experienced her mother’s rejection. I was right. I understand that once her brothers were born, she felt sidelined by her mother. At pivotal age of 17, she moved to New York City to work as an au pair, which would have taken her far away from family, friends, a small island. This is from her bio: “Kincaid went on to become a highly prolific writer, often writing about the heartache of a daughter, brought on by the rejection of a mother.” I just downloaded the audio on dreams by Carl Jung so have been looking over some of his thoughts. This one came to me when I read your most excellent (you have the most amazing, inviting and informative book reviews) post: “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” C.G. Jung

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