By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 164 pp. $16.95
By Susanna Moore
JAMAICA KINCAID's second novel, Lucy, is cool and fierce. It begins one January night with the arrival of 19-year-old Lucy Josephine Potter, a clear-eyed, intelligent girl from the West Indies, in a big, dirty American city. She has come to work for Mariah and Lewis, minding their four young daughters. Lucy is unworldly. She has never seen snow or been in an elevator. She is accustomed to saying grace before meals and she naively tells Mariah and Lewis her dreams, dreams in which Lewis chases a naked Lucy around the house.
With a selfish importunity that happily does not give her pause, Lucy goes about losing her island innocence with the vitality of someone who believes her entitlements equal her risks. She finds a young man, Paul, to satisfy her heartless, guiltless desire. She tells Mariah about him as they sit at night at the kitchen table: "Except for eating, all the time we spent together was devoted to sex. I told her what everything felt like, how surprised I was to be thrilled by the violence of it (for sometimes it was that, violent), what an adventure this part of my life had become, and how much I looked forward to it, because I had not known that such pleasure could exist and, what was more, be available to me."
Lucy's story is just that -- the discovery of all that is available to her. Not only sex, but friendship, treachery, solitude and self-expression, even the weather of the north. Lucy and Mariah become comrades. The family spends the summer in a house by a lake. Lucy carries the youngest child on her back through the woods. When Lucy discovers Lewis kissing Mariah's best friend, she knows in her dispassionately intuitive way that he will leave Mariah. Lucy, herself, at the end of the year, abandons Mariah's household to live in an apartment with her new Irish friend, Peggy. She buys a camera and takes black-and-white photographs of people on the street, inspired by the photographs she has seen in a museum. She works as assistant to a photographer who takes "pictures of food and other things with no life any longer in them," instead of the subject that really interests him, "people who had suffered horribly and through no fault of their own."
Perhaps like the damaged souls who entice the photographer, Lucy, too, is one of those who suffer through no fault of their own. For although she is uncomplaining and resourceful, Lucy suffers. She is full of bitterness and a cold unsentimental wisdom. When Mariah tries to soothe her, and patronizes her by offering her a book ("I read the first sentence. 'Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female -- this word is sufficient to define her.' I had to stop."), Lucy is irritated. "My life could not really be explained by this thick book, that made my hands hurt as I tried to keep it open. My life was at once something more simple and more complicated than that: for 10 of my 20 years, half of my life, I had been mourning the end of a love affair, perhaps the only true love in my whole life I would ever know."
Her true love is her mother. As in any story of true love, we long for the lovers to be reunited. Kincaid seems to believe that this is not possible when the lovers happen to be mother and child and perhaps she is right. Lucy does not open her mother's letters, even after her mother is forced to send a friend to tell Lucy of the sudden death of her father. When her mother is left impoverished and asks Lucy to come home, Lucy does not go, although she sends her mother the money she has been saving to rent an apartment, along with a letter, as cold as her heart, she boasts, in which she accuses her mother of betrayal and self-martyrdom, of having lost interest in her after the births of her three brothers. In an imaginative gesture of cruelty and repudiation, Lucy then describes her personal life. When her mother writes a humble, forgiving letter in reply, Lucy burns the letter. THE BOOK, written in the first person, is Lucy's story of the year of her journey -- away from her mother, away from home, away from the island and into the world. Lucy is determined, steady, not easily impressed, forthright and fair-minded. She is not possessed of humor or a sense of irony. She is aggrieved. She becomes passionate only when she allows herself to succumb to the dream that is the past. If her story fails at times to evince sympathy, or better yet, recognition, it is only because her aggrievement is so sour, so without the possibility of satisfaction. Surely one's complaint of the accustomed disappointments, and even horrors, of family life should contain some detachment, some mordant pleasure. Lucy takes the present rather impersonally, as if she were not in it, but the past burns for her with a solipsistic brightness. Lucy's present has been spoiled, left meaningless, by the bright flame of her past.
To lament that sympathy for a character is not readily felt is not to regret an occasion of amiability, but of plausibility. The toughness and elegance of Kincaid's writing is all that one could want. It is both poetic and matter-of-fact in its precision and spareness. At times, the formality of her structure is reminiscent of Scripture. Her willingness to risk our easy connivance by employing a dry and unsentimental tone is daring and full of integrity, but the stubborn, implacable Lucy needs to be grasped by the shoulders and shaken, if only once or twice.
Susanna Moore is the author of the novels "My Old Sweetheart" and "The Whiteness of Bones."