When I read Jamaica Kincaid's collection of stories, "At the Bottom of the River," two years ago, I was struck by their strangeness and beauty. They seemed to come from a place much further away than their setting -- the West Indies -- from a land the other side of sleep and dream, a world of images in which the most ordinary objects -- a chair, a pen, a bowl of fruit -- took on the most extraordinary luminosity.
I admired them enormously for their poetic abstractions, for the power of their transformations, but I admired them much as one might admire a beautiful glass box held up to the light. What was missing was that sense of an ongoing story, of felt life, life that could be entered and known.
"Annie John," Kincaid's first novel, is a much more satisfying book. This slim narrative -- most of its chapters appeared as individual stories in The New Yorker -- retains the shimmering, strange beauty of the earlier stories, but its poetry is grounded in detail, in the lovingly rendered life of its adolescent heroine. The loss of childhood is not merely metaphorical, as it seemed in "At the Bottom of the River," but movingly real.
The story of adolescence is a familiar one -- mysterious when one is in the throes of it, perhaps, but in retrospect familiar in its components: the growing consciousness of oneself as a sexual being and the resulting confusion; an awareness of oneself, and one's parents, as mortal; the conflicting needs for love and for separation and identity. What makes Annie's adolescence interesting to us are both the depth and strength of her intelligence and her feeling -- her sense, for example, "that the world was a strange place to be caught living in" -- and the culture, unfamiliar to most of us, in which she lives as the only child of a middle-class black family on the West Indian island of Antigua.
If adolescence is a peculiarly schizophrenic time -- the individual is neither child nor adult, and somewhat less than either -- Annie's is more so because of that culture. This is a world of obeah women and evil spirits, of charms and magic, a world in which Annie and her mother must be vigilant against the spirits sent to harm them by her father's former lovers.
It is also a world in which middle-class black children put on starched uniforms and go off to schools run on the model of the British system, where they celebrate the long-dead Queen Victoria's birthday, salute the Union Jack and study the British version of history. As Annie observes, "What with our teachers and our books, it was hard for us to tell on which side we really now belonged -- with the masters or the slaves -- for it was all history, it was all in the past, and everybody behaved differently now."
She is sure, however, that if her ancestors had gone from Africa to Europe, "they would have taken a proper interest in the Europeans on first seeing them, and said, 'How nice,' and then gone home to tell their friends about it." What Annie's experience eventually shows, of course, is that it is not so simple, that each of us is capable of being both master and slave, sometimes both at once.
Her observation about masters and slaves leads to a small rebellion: beneath a textbook picture of "Columbus in Chains," Annie writes, "The Great Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go."
Her punishment is to copy Books I and II of "Paradise Lost." Worse punishment, however, is the disapproval of her adored and adoring mother, for much of Annie John's story is the story of a girl's attempt to separate herself from a mother so powerful that "I could not be sure if for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother or when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world."
But Annie is not just in rebellion from an overly possessive mother; she fears the separation as much as she longs for it, is terrified by what it means to grow up, and although she secretly wants her mother to die, she believes that if her mother were to die she would die too. This conflict and her inability to understand it or to communicate it to anyone around her eventually lead Annie into a deep depression and finally what seems to be a schizophrenic episode, a state which leaves almost as quickly as it had come.
During that time, however, there is a scene in which Annie, in a kind of trance, washes a group of family photographs with soap and water until she has succeeded in erasing her mother and father from the waist down and everything of herself but her shoes.
The Freudian implications of what is happening here are obvious, but Kincaid -- to her credit, I think -- does not allow the narrator, Annie, to reflect much on her illness or to acknowledge that it is psychological and not physical.
In fact, Annie never -- in this book, anyway -- accepts growing up. We leave her on a boat for England, where she will study nursing, not wanting to go but wanting desperately to be out of her parents' house, still feeling that somehow they have betrayed her into adulthood. We haven't, I hope, heard the last of Annie John.