A new life for Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Annie John’
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The Center for Fiction goes to the backlist for its Clifton Fadiman Medal, which is awarded to a living author for a work at least 10 years old that ‘deserves renewed notice.’ This year’s winner, selected by Jane Smiley, is ‘Annie John’ by Jamaica Kincaid.
The book was Kincaid’s first novel -- her debut was a short story collection. When it hit shelves in 1985, it was praised by L.A. Times book columnist Elaine Kendall.
The narrator grew up in the capital city of St. John’s, hardly a metropolis by mainland standards but cosmopolitan compared to the tiny farming and fishing villages hugging the shore. St. John’s had electricity, supermarkets, an amazing number of modern banks, the deep-water harbor, and by the end of the ‘60s, an international airport; amenities putting it a decade ahead of the rural villages. In the period covered by the novel, the colonial legacy was still intact; schools, government, economy and manners British through and through. Annie’s father was a skilled carpenter; her mother had come from the equally small but lush island of Dominica. As an only child, Annie was indulged, adored and meticulously instructed in proper behavior -- Victorian behavior. Change comes slowly to the Leeward Islands and even now, 18th- and 19th-Century words and phrases linger in Antiguan English, lending it a quaint stateliness. Traces of that formality appear in Kincaid’s prose, giving the story a timeless quality, adding substance and weight to the smallest incident and detail....[Eventually] Annie becomes rebellious and defiant. She learns to lie and to steal.... she longs ‘to be in a place where nobody knew a thing about me and liked me for just that reason.’ Convincing her parents she wants to study nursing in England, she leaves Antigua, stage by stage, first in her mind, then in her heart; finally to the dock and the boat that will take her to Barbados and ultimately to Southampton. ‘My heart swelled with great gladness as the words ‘I shall never see this again’ spilled out inside me. But then, just as quickly, my heart shriveled up and the words ‘I shall never see this again’ stabbed at me.’ Thousands of first novelists have described those same emotions, but reading ‘Annie John,’ you can almost believe Kincaid invented ambivalence.
‘Annie John’ went on to be nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize for fiction (which was won that year by Louise Erdrich for ‘Love Medicine.’) In being honored by the Center for Fiction, Kincaid will receive the Clifton Fadiman Medal and $5,000 at a ceremony in New York on April 14.
-- Carolyn Kellogg