Top positive review
2 people found this helpful
on 23 November 2014
I resisted reading this when it first came out -- didn't seem like my kind of thing -- but recently I had to read it in order to teach it. I was impressed. It's very cunningly put together, in eight sections each of which focuses on a different stage of Annie John's growing up (I see the book as covering six or seven years), and what one learns in each section makes you reconsider the previous ones so that by the end, the reader has developed a rich sense of psychological and cultural complications. And yet the basic structure is perfectly clear -- a girl reaches a point where she has to separate herself from her mother and she is both empowered by and anxious about that separation. Think of "Paradise Lost," with Adam and Eve separated from paradise and free to work out their own destinies, yet also casting some longing looks back to a time when they didn't have to think of themselves as selves. (In case we don't get the parallel, Annie refers to her situation as "paradise" early in the book, and as a punishment for bad behavior at school, she is made to copy out Books 1 and 2 of Milton's epic.)
Annie's ambivalence shows up in all sorts of ways: in her different ways of responding to her mother; in her friendships with the "good" Gwen and the "bad" Red Girl; in her sometimes outrageous behavior and her stellar academic performance. And the world remains even as she grows up something of a mystery to her -- her mother seems to get angriest with her for behavior that is far from her most outrageous, and it is her mother who seems to spark the separation at the time she starts calling Annie a "young lady," although it might well be that Annie is ready at that point to make an issue of something that will establish some distance. She often says that she doesn't understand why she does what she does, and at such times, I think, Kincaid has nailed something about adolescence truthfully and unsentimentally.
I like the way too that the book develops a cultural-political subtext that puts Annie's growing freedom in the context of the colonial heritage of Antigua. When Annie sees a picture in her history book of Columbus in Chains, she defaces it by writing under it "The Great Man can no longer get up and go." Columbus, of course, is the godfather of European colonialism, and Annie is being educated in a school run on English lines (Queen Victoria's birthday is celebrated). So her defacing can be seen to represent the impotence of these old structures -- as can the girls lying on the tombstones of the old colonial masters as they discuss their changing bodies in adolescence.
I haven't even mentioned the picture that we get throughout of Annie's parents' marriage (apparently close and sexual, despite a 35-year age gap), as well as the tension between the old ways that are associated with the Caribbean ("obeah" magic and healing) and relatively modern medicine. The whole effect is to enrich a familiar story line ("growing up") in a way that makes the narrative voice distinctive and, in its concreteness, plausible and that embeds it in a very specific culture at a particular historical moment. Very much worth reading -- and very readable.