Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid
Then, turning to me, my father asked what he could make for me.
It came into my mind without thinking. "A trunk," I said.
"But you have a trunk already. You have your mother's trunk," he said to me.
"Yes but I want my own trunk," I said back.
"Very well. A trunk is your request. A trunk you will have," he said.
Out of the corner of one eye, I could see my mother. Out of the corner of my other eye, I could see her shadow on the wall, cast there by the lamplight. It was a big and solid shadow, and it looked so much like my mother than I became frightened. For I could not be sure whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world.
This is a marvellous novella (150 pages) about a teenager outgrowing her home. It’s a biographical structure, without an obvious plot. The book pulls your forward with the usual tale of someone growing up and realising their relationship with their parents can never be the same.
It’s a story about attitude, a variation on the voice novel, and an early example of the intersection between memoir and fiction. Unlike modern auto-fiction, the events here are not cleanly and easily mapped onto Kincaid's life.
The style is neat and plain without being dull or inanely simplified. There are no unnecessary words, either for length and syntax or for unnecessary show-off vocabulary. It's like a better version of Hemmingway, and not over rated.
Part of the effect is to tell such a big story about growing up in such well controlled language and in so few pages. In a sense, a mother turning away from a daughter is a simple thing. But Kincaid's tight, unfussy prose creates a rising sense of awareness, and relays the submerged sense of shock that teenagers feel when they outgrow their homes.
Annie John's secret feelings of shame and hatred are so accurate and empathetic, and the calm, level prose relates that tension as well as it portrays the smooth, sunny days in Antigua when everything in the young girl's life was charmed and happy.
This book has some stuff that is outrageous, but like the effect of a slowly deteriorating parent-child relationship the details add up to a prolonged numb sensation that eventually blisters into sadness. 'The real truth was I couldn't bear to have anyone see how deep in disfavour I was with my mother.'
This process of alienation is relayed through a variation between descriptions of specific events and summaries of periods of her life. Techniques like listing, summarising, hearsay, and protracting events are all used to create a vivid, conversational recollection that gives spite to her tone as well as warmth and growth and humour. Lydia Davies says that many modern writers cannot handle long sentences. Kincaid can. Virginia Tufte would be impressed.
Annie John has to realise that the need for independence is inherent in her, not just driven by her mother. People who want alienation create that in their relationships. 'How much I longed to be in a place where no-body knew a thing about me and liked me for just that reason.'
The ending is a wonderful mix of sadness and optimism. The final chapter is electric; I especially enjoyed the detail about the library fines.
This book will live next to The Howling Miller and The Gate of Angels as one of my favourites. It's very short and I made it last. It is in many ways a response to A House for Mr Biswas, but without accepting the terms or the premise of that book. I much prefer Kincaid's prose.
When is she getting a Nobel prize? Or does it not matter so much anymore?
Pairs well with