I have lost count of how many coming-of-age books I’ve read in my life. It seems like every author, at some point in their career, writes about someone growing up. Growing up is a universal commonality, and so the success of this type of narrative should be no surprise. I happily admit that when well-written, this is a type of novel that I love.
What I have never read is a book by an Antiguan author, set on the island of Antigua which is itself part of the nation of Antigua and Barbados. Annie John is familiar in its themes and completely exotic in its surrounds. It’s also a deeply personal look at the relationship between a mother and daughter, and Jamaica Kincaid’s telling of that dynamic is poetic and delightful.
We meet Annie John in the early stages of her life. She is the child of a Dominican immigrant and a native Antiguan who have a gap of 35 years between them. Annie’s mother left her home in the Dominican Republic due to problems with her own parents, and found an unexpected life in Antigua. Annie’s early memories of her mother are overflowing with love; a love so encompassing that a turnaround is practically inevitable. As Annie grows up, going to school and interacting with people on the island, the warmth and affection that her mother showers her with is transformed right along with Annie’s body. As she approaches her teenage years, a schism develops between mother and daughter that is imaginatively rendered as a black, pulsing organism within each person, a beast that lunges and shrinks at various times. The love that was so powerful between mother and daughter becomes equally powerful as a force of strife.
Annie is a peculiar main character. She nearly comes off as an antagonist in some portions of the novel, or as the Mean Girl that protagonists in other books tend to villainize. She is smarter than anyone at her school, and quickly develops the kind of charismatic whirlpool that sucks people in as quickly as it casts them out. She has a wild temperament, falling in and out of love with her friends at a moment’s notice, and a rebellious nature that the small island of Antigua cannot hold. All of this combined humanizes her and makes her completely likable. We all have a little Annie John in us, and so her actions make sense in the context of her situation, whether its stealing books from the library or flashing her private parts to her friends in a cemetery.
A book set in Antigua, which is to all outward appearances a paradise, serves to dispel the illusions of just that. At some point in Annie John, Annie realizes that what she wants more than anything is to escape this tropical destination. Again, we come on a familiar theme in that children often want to fly from the nest where they were born, no matter how beautiful it is, because to them it is common and lacks the vibrancy of “the other.” Annie’s strife with her mother only emboldens her to flee, and her intelligence and peculiarities further separate her from the islanders, whom she comes to see as incredibly dull. This malaise that she feels for her home country even manifests itself into an un-diagnosable ailment that almost kills her, and it is not long after recovering that she decides where she will go. That she chooses England, a land of perpetual rain, is troublesome because rain on the island seems to be a manifestation of her illness (she gets better the minute that the rainy season ends), but that’s a middling detail easily overlooked.
From what I gather, Annie John seems to be a classic of young adult literature, and I can certainly understand why, but likening this to the young adult books of our own era is like comparing a T-rex to an iguana – they don’t build them like they used to. Admittedly, I avoid most contemporary young adult novels. I used to read them until I realized that I was reading the same book ad nauseum. If things have improved in the last decade, then YA authors have my apologies. Annie John might be considered a young adult novel because of the age of its protagonist, but this is not a book to be trapped into genre specifics. No matter the age, reading about the fraught dynamics of a mother and daughter relationship and watching the struggles and triumphs of a young girl growing up are themes that can be beautiful to anyone, and Kincaid’s writing is poetic and full of some of the most imaginative metaphors that I’ve ever seen. She truly makes this a pleasure to read.