AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
This was a very enjoyable, quick read. The novel (published in 1990) starts off as an engaging coming of age story about a girl from the West Indies arriving in North America as an au pair, although Lucy’s resentment and anger become increasingly evident as the book progresses.
The book reads in many way as an autobiographical account, and matches many details in the life of Jamaica Kincaid (who was born in Antigua and now lives in the USA), although it is described unequivocally on the cover as a novel.
The teenage protagonist Lucy is direct and sympathetic, and she experiences a total culture shock on arriving in North America, where she helps to care for the four little girls of the wealthy Mariah and Lewis. Lucy’s world is described in sensual but sparse prose, and her bewilderment at the delight Mariah displays in what Lucy sees as the most banal things is evident.
“So Mariah is made to feel alive by some flowers bending in the breeze. How does a person get to be that way?”
Lucy remembers being forced, at the age of 10, to learn a poem about daffodils at school – presumably a reference to Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils – and how she felt a fury that she could not place at being forced to learn stanza after stanza of a poem from another country about a flower that she’s never seen.
“…inside I was making a vow to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem.”
Mariah shows a maternal concern for Lucy, encouraging her interests and buying her membership of a local museum. Lucy, although loved back home, comes from a harsher maternal environment. Her relationship with her mother is more honest in some ways than her relationship with Mariah, but much, nevertheless, has still remained unsaid. Lucy has vowed to cut herself off from her mother, and never to return home, although the nature of her mother’s perceived betrayal is not clear until well into the novel.
Meanwhile, Mariah and Lewis have a relationship that is externally perfect, although it becomes evident that there are seething undercurrents of discord and resentment, encapsulated early on by a particularly disturbing scene involving the death of a rabbit.
Lucy meets bland, entitled, rich people at parties hosted by Mariah and Lewis:
“They had names like Peters, Smith, Jones and Richards – names that were easy on the tongue, names that made the world spin. They had somehow all been to the islands – by that they meant the place where I was from – and had fun there. I decided not to like them just on that basis … somehow it made me ashamed to come from a place where the only thing to be said about it was ‘I had fun when I was there.'”
Describing this book as a post-colonial, feminist novel examining the immigrant experience in North America – a valid description! – might easily make the novel sound both heavy and off-putting. Instead, it is a beautifully constructed, intensely readable account of an girl on the brink of adulthood interrogating her assumptions about the world and, importantly, the assumptions of those around her.
I see this novel as an example of how my project to read work from all over the world is giving me the opportunity to enjoy the pick of the crop of authors world-wide. I would have been hugely unlikely to have come across this book without this project, and even less likely to have picked it up and read it if I did, but having done so I would be more than happy to read more of Jamaica Kincaid’s work.