THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER By Jamaica Kincaid (HarperCollins, 226 pages, $24.50)
Reading Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel is like eating a bitter yet juicy tropical fruit. There is no satisfying sweetness, but its texture and exotic quality make it worth savoring. Narrated by 70-year-old Xuela, a native of the Caribbean island of Dominica, The Autobiography of My Mother chronicles a life of hardship and emotional deprivation. “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 loss not only cripples her emotionally, but also represents a severed link to the past. Xuela’s mother was one of the last of the Carib people, the natives who were edged out by white colonizers and the black slaves they brought to the island. Kincaid, a 46-year-old native of Antigua living in Bennington, Vt., has written two acclaimed novels, Annie John and Lucy, that feature strained relationships between a mother and daughter. Here, Kincaid has annihilated the mother, idealizing her in death. As an infant, Xuela is left with an uncaring laundress. Several years later, her father brings her to live with him and his new wife, who mistreats the girl. Xuela soon realizes that her father, half Scot and half African, uses his position as a policeman to exploit his neighbors. “He came to despise all who behaved like the African people,” Kincaid writes, “not all who looked like them, only all who behaved like them, all who were defeated, doomed, conquered, poor, diseased.” At 15, Xuela is sent to live with a childless couple and realizes that her function is to provide a child for them. Impregnated by the husband, she aborts the fetus, and vows to remain childless. While the events of Xuela’s life are disturbing, the first-person voice is strangely compelling. Kincaid employs an almost incantatory tone, using repetition and unusual syntax to give the book a hypnotic rhythm. Xuela is not likable, but her brutal way of expressing unpleasant truths makes her character—and the novel—bracing.
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