Saturday, August 18, 2007

#53 - Annie John

Finally, a novel from my Around the World in 52 Books challenge that truly captures the setting where the author herself was born. Jamaica Kincaid's utterly lovely Annie John, a bildungsroman to match, I think the masters like Joyce or Richler when it comes to imbibing the story with a strong sense of narrative voice and intention, takes place in Antigua, and tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl growing up and coming to terms with a difficult relationship with her mother.

While Kincaid's prose may be straightforward, her intentions are certainly not, as Annie John is a rich, vibrant novel where the protagonist, who grows from being an awkward but brilliant pre-adolescent to young woman setting off into the world on her own for the very first time, refuses to move seamlessly from the arms of her mother into her own generation. It's such a real book, and gave me such a rich reading experience, despite (as with The Accidental) getting through half of it months ago only to pick it up again last weekend. I could smell the salty air of the island, feel the hot sun, imagine her crisp school uniform, picture the richness of the setting, and wanted to taste all the food I had never heard of, all the while thinking that there are common themes with any girl: getting her period (oh, how very different from Margaret), finding true friends, reacting to boys, and enduring a sickness (okay maybe this one applies just to me). But Kincaid's ability to ensure that we find Annie John different, if only from the place she grew up, moves this book from a novel about a foreign place into a book that displays bits of post-colonial brilliance.

Yet, it's the private, personal, behind-closed-doors warring, back-and-forth relationship that Annie has with her mother that truly forms the backbone of this story. As Annie firmly moves beyond her safe embrace, and into that stage where all you do is fight, push back, and fight some more, the whole of her existence is described in opposition to the woman who raises her carefully and lovingly. Metaphorical maybe if you want to think in those cliched terms of countries being women and all that, but it struck me as powerful, as life-affirming, as honest and real. Of course a bildungsroman, technically (and correct me if I'm wrong) tosses out the hero into the social world, forcing his change to come about because he leaves home; but here, if we think about it in the world of these women, the social order of the family most definitely comes from Annie John's mother, and the conflict with her society truly brings about our hero's changes.

Kincaid's writing reminds me of Abeng by Michelle Cliff or the non-Wide Sargasso Sea novels by Jean Rhys in a way; she has the same kind of lilt to her sentences, but Annie John remains her story from beginning to end, influences or no influences. On the whole, I think I rather enjoyed this book, and if I were still in the essay writing mode of university, I think I would have gotten great pleasure out of deconstructing it and putting it all back together in a paper.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I shot this while reading, of course, but you can see the water and the boat, plus a bit of Tina's lovely boyfriend Mimoun lying in the sun with his own book. His was in French. He is from Paris, you know. Totally irrelevant details but they make a wonderful couple. I'm just sayin'.

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