By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983
General reading value: 3.5 /5
Armchair travel value: 2/5
So I am a tenth of the way through my 230 country-challenge! Given the demands of my studies and work, I am pretty happy with this accomplishment though after this year I intend to speed up both my reading and posting – CANNOT WAIT! I also have a bunch of other ideas for different features for this blog and will start to roll them out soon as well.
On to Annie John – apart from the often mouth-watering descriptions of local Antiguan cuisine and the occasional reference to obeah (folk magic or sorcery), Annie could be any girl growing up anywhere and there was more than one occasion in which she reminded me of another famous fictional lass with a similar name – Anne of Green Gables. Both are precocious, slightly awkward looking and suffer from conceit, but in a pleasantly disarming manner. Both have difficult relationships with the maternal figure in their lives, however, in Anne’s case it is a non-relative (Marilla) with whom she eventually forms a close and loving bond whereas in Annie’s case it is with her mother with whom she begins with a close and loving bond but ends in a distant and somewhat hostile relationship.
The story is a simple and short bildungsroman – a genre which I have made clear in discussions with readers and other bloggers is possibly my least favourite. Having said that, I enjoyed its use in Annie John, primarily because as she grows up she becomes infinitely more interesting and unpredictable, something that can’t be said of other fictional youths whose entire lives are mapped out by their authors and much to the reader’s boredom.
Each chapter tends to cover a particular rite of passage in Annie’s life whether it be going to school – where her brains make her the object of both admiration and envy – negotiating friendships – both with the people she should and, to her mother’s disgust, the people she shouldn’t – dealing with puberty, overcoming illness and discovering boys. Concurrent with her experiences of these rites and both influencing and being influenced by them is her ongoing and changing relationship with her mother which ranges from the most ferocious love to just plain ferociousness; at times I thought their animosity towards each other seemed almost unnatural.
Antigua is not given a competing starring role in this novel and I suspect I would have learned more about it by reading Kincaid’s non-fiction work, A Small Place. As I said earlier, however, there are a lot of references to the food enjoyed by inhabitants of this island. Christophine (choko in Australia), breadfruit, droppers (have no idea what these are but they don’t sound appealing!), antroba (crushed eggplant), dasheen (taro), salt fish, pepper pot, banana fritters…oh my! And here I am munching on a plain chicken sandwich with lettuce!
The other distinctly cultural aspect to the novel is the presence of magic or obeah which is particularly marked in the chapter when Annie falls ill with an unexplained and never identified affliction which traditional medicines cannot seem to cure. This brings the arrival of Ma Jolie who:
“…made cross marks on the soles of my feet, on my knees, on my stomach, in my armpits, and on my forehead. She lit two special candles…burned incense…(and) put tiny red candles in a basin of thick yellow oil…in the basin she had placed scraps of paper with the names of people who had wanted to harm me, most of them women my father had loved a long time ago…”
Perhaps what makes this book most memorable though is Kincaid’s refreshing lack of political correctness. Annie’s precociousness could be grating to some readers but Kincaid is unapologetic about it. As an example, Annie reflects on an English classmate, wondering if “perhaps (the classmate) wanted to be in England where no one would remind her constantly of the terrible things her ancestors had done…Her ancestors had been the masters, while ours had been their slaves. She had such a lot to be ashamed of…(w)e could look everyone in the eye for our ancestors had done nothing wrong except just sit somewhere defenseless”. A sharp and acerbic comment on British colonialism if ever there was one!
I would have liked Kincaid to have made Antigua less of a backdrop to Annie’s story and I felt the character of the mother was too one-dimensional making it difficult to see what Annie was rallying and rebelling against. Indeed, an interesting project in this day of authors writing books from the point of view of characters in others’ books would be for someone to write about Annie’s mother’s life and her perspective on her daughter and their relationship. Something to think about…
I am devouring Half of a Yellow Sun at the moment and expect my next post will be about Nigeria. Until then…
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on Antigua…
Largest city: St John’s
Area: 281 km2
Currency: Eastern Caribbean dollar
Delay your stay: A Small Place by Jamica Kincaid