Her mother was a foundling left near the door of a convent on the island of Dominica. And when Xuela, narrator of this beautiful, harsh story, was born, the mother died. So Xuela was a doubled orphan, her woman's lineage extinguished for two generations back.
Furthermore, to be a West Indian woman of color, a mix of Scottish, Carib Indian and African, was to have a history scrawled in such violently contradictory pen strokes--by white freebooters, indigenous forebears and slaves brought over as cargo--as to obliterate itself. To have an obliterated history is to have an unappeasable grievance against the present and the future.
Xuela calls her story, told at the end of her life, the autobiography of her mother. But her mother, of course, had none, or none that Xuela could know. So this is an augmented contradiction, and she hoists it as a banner of solitude and defiance. "My mother died when I was born," she repeats perhaps a dozen times in a book that is sculpted finely out of fire, as much incantation as narrative, yet employing every one of a narrative's agile sinews.
"For my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind," she declares at the start. No mother or grandmother, no one to teach her the mythic resources of her sex and stock in a male, racial and colonial world.
There is a hole in her; she addresses it and names it her mother's story, though it is hers. She addresses the sex from which she was orphaned and renounces it. She will cut out--symbolically--her womb and its dependencies of love, acceptance and maternity. She will pleasure herself, alone and with men, she will even marry, but she will submit to no one and nothing. She will have no children.
In a lesser work this would be feminist brag. The genius of Jamaica Kincaid, who in "Autobiography" may have written the best of her several splendid books, is to make Xuela disconcertingly humble. "I long to meet the thing greater than I am, the thing to which I can submit," she writes at the end. She laments the mother she never had and the motherhood she renounces:
"Observing any human being from infancy . . . to see experience collect in the eyes, around the corners of the mouth, the weighing down of the brow, the heaviness in heart and soul, the thick gathering around the waist, the breasts, the slowing down of footsteps not from old age but only with the caution of life--all this is something so wonderful to observe, so wonderful to behold; the pleasure for the observer, the beholder, is an invisible current between the two, observed and observer, beheld and beholder, and I believe that no life is complete, no life is really whole, without this invisible current. . . ."
She speaks not of choice but of desolate necessity. To be a woman in the colonial, racist, male-ruled world she lives in is to submit to the hegemonies that made orphans of herself and her mother. But she has no illusions about her solipsist course. It is a flamboyant denunciation of history and society but there is no triumph in it:
"It will only do; it is not the best kind; it has the taste of something left out on a shelf too long that has turned rancid, and when eaten makes the stomach turn. It will do, it will do but only because there is nothing to take its place; it is not to be recommended."
Such doubleness gives this brainy novel a soul. It is the sadness under the wrathy lilt, and under both of these it is the flowering loveliness of language, sensibility and character. Xuela tells of her childhood with magical sentience, of her young womanhood with searing sensuality and of her old age with a stoicism leavened by the gathering dreaminess of death not far off. Each is lit by lightning flashes of irony and anger.
Mainly the lightning is directed at her father, the figure who dominates her imagination and serves as the palpable target of her wrath and contempt. Stricken at his wife's death, he arrived at the house of the village laundress with two bundles. "One was his child," Xuela tells us, "the other was his soiled clothes. He would have handled one more gently, he would have expected better treatment for one than the other, but which one I do not know."
Thus her tone throughout for this handsome, vain, invariably well-dressed man. He visits her in his gleaming white uniform. "A jailer's uniform," she calls it. He is a local police chief, a prosperous landowner, a pillar of the community and the Methodist Church; he has made for himself an image of calm judiciousness and justice "when really he's a thief, a jailer, a liar and a coward," Xuela tells us. His hidden vices of discreet corruption and financial greed inflame her. Nothing he can do--not even taking her home when he marries again, nor his insistence that she get an education--persuades her that he is anything but evil.
And yet she lets the reader wonder. He obsesses her and her true anger is over his temporary abandonment and lifelong reserve. An enticingly complex and by no means admirable figure filters through Xuela's permanent hostility--but we are aware of other filters. Certainly, she does not like him, she says at one point. Yet: "Perhaps I loved him but I could never bring myself to admit it."
She cannot rage at the mother she has lost; her father serves, instead, perhaps mercifully. Writing of his chilly isolation in his possessions, she says, revealingly: "I was not like my mother who was dead. I was like him. He was alive."
Her chill is in her resolution to live only for herself, to let nothing touch her. But it is ice-cubes made from champagne--she fizzes. There is a startlingly beautiful description of lying awake as a child, hearing the noises of her father coming home and the bats and insects in the garden, and subsiding into a consolatory self-fondling, and finally sleep. There is her account of walking to school along the sea road one immaculate morning, the waves glinting "as if at any moment a small city made out of that special light of the sun on the water would arise, and from it might flow a joy I had not yet imagined."
As an adolescent she lets herself be seduced by a friend of her father's; later she will seduce the English doctor she works for. Kincaid writes with dazzling erotic power but the sex is inseparable from Xuela's intransigent detachment. She receives enormous pleasure but she is in command. Seeing an ungainly lover naked, she observes that what makes a man desirable is not his body, "but what his body might make you feel when it touches you."
The desolate self-sufficiency of Xuela's life is sometimes shocking. It is never oppressive. Kincaid has given her a gleaming argument: Here, taken to an extreme, is a woman's retort to sexual, racial and historical oppression on a West Indian island, and perhaps elsewhere. It is not that the argument necessarily convinces. Kincaid does not say that Xuela is right. She says that you will not forget her. And she is right.