Ambivalence in Antigua: leaving childhood behind

Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. [ pp. $11.95. Jamaica Kincaid uses the English language as if she had just invented it. Everything she writes about her childhood in Antigua has a new-minted ring to it, and there's not a dull line or dusty clich'e in the whole book.

Here, for instance, is ``my mother'' -- with a reference to a sixpence that calls up a highly inappropriate image of Queen Victoria:

``I found her beautiful. Her head looked as if it should be on a sixpence. What a beautiful long neck, and long plaited hair, which she pinned up around the crown of her head because when her hair hung down it made her too hot. Her nose was the shape of a flower on the brink of opening. Her mouth I could have looked at it forever if I had to and not mind. Her lips were wide and almost thin, and when she said certain words I could see small parts of big white teeth -- so big, and pearly, like some nice button on one of my dresses.''

But this is certainly not a completely happy book despite its moments of pure joy and sly humor -- after all, a child's view can be morbid and frightening and Miss Kincaid can describe only too vividly the depression that can overwhelm an unwary child. Besides, her story (a series of linked sketches rather than a novel) has a somber theme: the poison of love grown possessive, in this case mother-daughter love.

The book that begins with the small daughter clinging to her mother, terrified that her mother ``will sail away,'' ends with the daughter herself sailing away, leaving for England in an ambivalent mood.

In an early chapter she tells us: ``The only way I could go into the water was if I was on my mother's back, my arms clasped tightly around her neck. . . . It was only then that I could forget how big the sea was, how far down the bottom could be, and how filled up it was with things that couldn't understand a nice hallo. . . . I would place my ear against her neck, and it was as if I were listening to a giant shell, for all the sounds around me -- the sea, the winds, the birds screeching -- would seem as if they came from inside her. . . .''

But in the final farewell to the island and her parents, she tells us ``my heart swelled with a great gladness as the words `I shall never see this again' spilled out inside me. But then just as quickly, my heart shriveled up and the words `I shall never see this again' stabbed at me.''

Nevertheless, it seems that resentment will win out over affection -- but perhaps not. After all, Annie John at some stage in her career has gone on to set down these affection-filled recollections.

Pamela Marsh is on the Monitor's staff.

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