THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER
By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar Straus Giroux
228 pp., $20
The very title of Jamaica Kincaid's third novel, ''The Autobiography of My Mother,'' poses a paradox, and not just the time-honored one of labeling a work of fiction a true story. The narrator of this particular ''autobiography'' is a woman whose mother died giving birth to her. The life story that she tells is not her dead mother's, but her own.
Yet, because the narrator and heroine of this story has no children of her own, it seems impossible that she could be the ''mother'' of the title, even though it is clearly her autobiography.
Whose story is it? We are left to conclude, perhaps, that this woman, in telling her own life story, is somehow speaking on behalf of her lost mother, whose story cannot really be known or told.
The opening sentence sounds the novel's keynote: ''My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity: at my back was always a bleak, black wind.'' The narrator is born on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica. We do not even learn her name until a third of the way through the book: A name, she insists, is ''not the gateway'' to who one really is.
Names reflect family histories, and Xuela Claudette Richardson, as she is called, cannot remember her beautiful, ghostly mother except in dreams, where she sees only a bare foot and the hem of a long dress. Her father, whom she remembers very well, is someone she would rather forget. ''When my mother died, leaving me a small child vulnerable to all the world, my father took me and placed me in the care of the same woman he paid to wash his clothes. It is possible that he emphasized to her the difference between the two bundles....''
The young Xuela has no love for her foster mother, who treats her decently, but has no love for her. Her father continues to be an intermittent dark presence in her life. A man of mixed African and European heritage - handsome, ambitious, corrupt, and pitiless - he is a police officer. ''He was poor,'' reflects his daughter, recalling her earliest memories of him, ''but it was not because he was good; he had not done enough bad things yet to get rich.''
When her father, a rising man, remarries, his new wife, half-French, half-African, schemes to destroy her stepdaughter. ''My spirit rose to meet this challenge. No love: I could live in a place like this.... Love would have defeated me.''
Forging her own identity and freedom in a loveless world, Xuela loves only herself. She finds pleasure in sensuality and learns to make make use of her considerable sex appeal, but she has no use for love and no desire to bear children.
She becomes an expert at terminating unwanted pregnancies. She marries a man she does not love, and briefly falls in love with a man she cannot marry.
The island where she lives represents a way of life to which she cannot assent. Those who prosper have done so only at the expense of others, while the exploited poor, who have her sympathy, have been reduced to a level where they cannot help themselves, try though they may.
Kincaid, who was born in Antigua and emigrated to New York as a teenager, has blended elements of fiction and autobiography in her previous novels, ''Annie John'' and ''Lucy.''
In her poised and crystalline prose, precise and serene as a knife drawn through water, she now gives us this starkly memorable ''self-portrait'' of a calm, thoughtful, utterly alienated woman who has learned to lead a life devoid of love, but not devoid of dignity.