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Paradise Lost, Selfhood Gained

August 16, 2010

Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John, 1985.

Annie John is a coming-of-age novel set on the Caribbean island of Antigua. In exquisite prose, Kincaid describes the drama of Annie’s separation from her mother. It is fiction, yet Sven Birkerts discusses it in The Art of Time in Memoir (reviewed in the previous post on 8 August).

Birkerts dares to “rankle the border police” not only because Kincaid bases the novel on her own life, but also because of the lessons it holds for memoir-writers. Annie John lacks the secondary time vantage point that Birkerts says is usually necessary in a memoir. But he argues that the counterpoint is provided by both a retrospective narrative voice and the use of a series of archetypal  scenes, emblematic of the steps that occur as the child grows into a separate person, steps that we can all recognise.

The novel consists of eight short chapters, each describing one such emblematic step. In chapter one she lives in the paradise of her mother’s love, but becomes preoccupied with death. In the second chapter, when Annie is twelve and she points out material in a shop that she says would look nice on both of them, her mother says “‘It’s time you had your own clothes. You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me.’ To say that I felt the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far. …”

The story proceeds through such moments of crisis. In the penultimate chapter she experiences what might clinically be called a major depressive episode, but which in archetypal terms is a cathartic purging of her childhood past. Like everything else in the book, this is vividly described. In the last chapter she leaves her parents and the island to study nursing in England.

The novel is set during the period that Antigua was a British colony, and Annie’s journey to independence parallels that of her island. In particular the complexity of her feelings towards her mother reflects the ambivalence in the relationship between colony and colonial power.

As a reader I became totally immersed in the world of this book – the island of Antigua and the complex and engaging character of Annie. I did not notice the skill and art with which Kincaid constructed the novel until after I finished and I tried to work out how she had achieved it.  Birkerts warns the aspiring memoirist against imitating the “linear simplicity of Kincaid’s narration”, and suggests instead learning from her use of emblematic scenes, “where one spotlit moment has the effect of standing in for, or symbolizing, a whole larger situation.”

My favourite image is when Annie, at fifteen, sees herself in a shop window and feels old and miserable. She thinks of a painting she saw of Satan, just after he had been cast out of heaven. “Satan was wearing a smile, but it was one of those smiles that you could see through, one of those smiles that make you know the person is just putting up a good front. At heart, you could see, he was really lonely and miserable at the way things had turned out.”

This book captured me. I have already reread it and will do so again.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    August 18, 2010 8:41 pm

    Hi Bryce,What a lovely review. I read Kincaid’s novel years ago and had entirely forgotten about it until I read your review. I remember it as a bittersweet evocation of the complexities of the post-colonial legacy.

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