Though I read Caribbean-American author Jamaica Kincaid a long time before encountering the Italian author Elena Ferrante, reading Lucy made me aware of a similarity in their characters, in their holding nothing back, allowing even the darkest thoughts to arise, unfiltered stream of consciousness narratives of moments that challenge the reader. They are confronting in their truth-telling and demand to be read beyond the surface.
There is no alluding to, there is cold, hard, observant reality and with Lucy’s arrival to a new country, there is the stark contrast of perspectives between her and those she encounters, that speak to their historical context and how they continue to play out in the present.
Lucy is a 19 year old woman who has left her home in the West Indies and come to America to be an au pair for a family of four young children. The book is set over one year, her experience as a new, young immigrant.
It is both an escape and an adventure for Lucy, to have left everything behind and to strike out on her own independently; she reinforces that feeling in her refusal to open weekly letters from her mother. She does however often occupy her thoughts, moving between anger, resentment, longing and regret.
Lucy quickly develops a close relationship with Mariah reinforcing the complexity of the mother-daughter bond.
The times I loved Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother. The times that I did not love Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother.
She is surprised when she experiences homesickness for the first time.
I did not know that the sun could shine and the air remain cold; no one had ever told me. What a feeling that was! How can I explain? Something I had always known – the way I knew my skin was the colour brown of a nut rubbed repeatedly with a soft cloth, or the way I knew my own name – something I took completely for granted, “the sun is shining, the air is warm,” was not so.
Having never understood and had impatience for characters in books who yearn for home, she discovers a rising and unwelcome longing for all she had willingly left behind. Though her words of home and family are often bitter, she experiences a reluctant and surprising feeling of loss.
Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act – leaving home and coming to this new place – I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.
She replaces the discontent of life in her home and country, with a new melancholy, as she discovers what it feels like to be an outsider, an immigrant.
A Daffodil Isn’t Always A Symbol of Joy
One morning Mariah speaks to her of the arrival of spring, of how it made her feel glad to be alive.
She said the word “spring” as if spring were a close friend, a friend who dared to go away for a long time and would soon appear for their passionate reunion. She said “Have you ever seen daffodils pushing their way up out of the ground?
So Mariah is made to feel alive by some flowers bending in the breeze. How does a person get to be that way?
She remembers being forced to memorise and recite a poem when she was ten years old (at Queen Victoria Girl’s School), the praise she’d received afterwards and the nightmare of being chased by daffodils she’d had that evening.
I was then at the height of my two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true. And so I made pleasant little noises that showed both modesty and appreciation, but inside I was making a vow to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem.
She recounts the dream memory in anger to Mariah. In a park a few days later they come across a swathe of flowers under a tree that Lucy doesn’t recognise but is filled with the desire to crush and kill.
Mariah said, “These are daffodils. I’m sorry about the poem, but I’m hoping you’ll find them lovely all the same.”
The flowers represent the disconnect between them, the presentation of something as beautiful that recalls the deep-seated, long reaching tentacles of imperial injustice, and Mariah’s colonial-like suggestion, further pressing Lucy to see the world as she does. Lucy reminds Mariah of her humiliating experience, the long poem about flowers she would not see in real life until she was nineteen, and feels guilty in her response.
I felt sorry that I had cast her beloved daffodils in a scene she had never considered, a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes…It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same.
A Clash of Cultures – Our Circumstances Develop Our Perceptions
Though the family provide her comfortable means to enter this new world, she mock-marvels at how these people came to be the way are, noticing and judging the way they act, the things they say, seeing their similarity to all humanity (in her experience), observing the naivety of privilege, in thinking they might be exempt from certain tragic situations, expressing shock at circumstances Lucy considers normal.
Mariah did not know that Lewis was not in love with her anymore. It was not the sort of thing she could imagine. She could imagine the demise of the fowl of the air, fish in the sea, mankind itself, but not that the only man she had ever loved would no longer love her.
It is a year that changes her further, as she comes to know this new country, makes a new friend or two and begins to see herself as the woman other people see and pursues that self to meet a kind of aloof desire.
Kincaid’s biting prose is sublime, never what you expect, she delights in the unfiltered version of humanity and delivers many poignant, ironic and thought provoking insights along the way. Brilliant.
The Author, Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in the capital city of St. John’s, Antigua in 1949. Antigua is a small island in the West Indies (a region of the Caribbean basin), colonised by the British in 1632 that became independent in 1981.
Her mother was from Dominica and her biological father, a West Indian chauffeur, whom she didn’t meet until her thirties. Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, when the first of her three brothers was born.
Until then she’d had the sole attention of her mother so life changed dramatically thereafter. At 17 she left for America and did not return to Antigua for 20 years, though it resonated deep within her creativity.
She is currently Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a focus on creative writing and African American writers.
In November 2020, UK publisher Picador won a four way auction to publish 10 books (in 2022 & 2023) by Jamaica Kincaid, the titles to be released are her novels Annie John, The Autobiography of My Mother, Lucy, Mr Potter and her most recent novel, See Now Then; the non-fiction works Talk Stories and My Brother; two books on gardening, My Garden Book and Among Flowers; and the short-story collection At the Bottom of the River.
My review of The Autobiography of My Mother – my Outstanding Read of 2015
My review of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – a post-colonial novel set in Zimbabwe
My Review of The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
New Yorker Article: The Disturbances of the Garden: In the garden, one performs the act of possessing by Jamaica Kincaid, August 31, 2020
My first exposure to Jamaica Kincaid’s work was a short story in the New Yorker and as you write about so well, her work sticks in the mind. She’s one of the few authors I remember so vividly after one story.
This sounds like an amazing book with that contrast between how Lucy and Mariah see something so seemingly positive as a daffodil and the insight into a different lived experience.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I well remember the impact of reading The Autobiography of My Mother, it was a book I read very early in the year, but by the year end, nothing else had delivered the impact of that book. It’s not every reader’s cup of tea to be so confronted, but I found her lucid, lyrical, rhythmic prose striking and original. I’m so pleased her works are being released in the UK, the timing is perfect, her works too are coming of age, in a time when people are more ready to listen and consider the message.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Glad to hear that her books are making over to the UK, especially considering what has happened to the Windrush generation and their children.
This is such a wonderful close read of the book. The interaction of her relationships with her employers and how that is inevitably affected by the impact of colonialism sounds so well done. Watching her go from having white ideals imposed on her at school to then as an adult by her employers is such a hard truth.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It is an incredible depiction of the effect of that earlier conditioning, especially as it comes out in bitterness and the disconnect between them is so vast. Even within herself, as Lucy comes of age in her new environment she is peeling back and discovering her own layers and what drives her, conscious or unconsciously. Kincaid is an incredible writer, though not all readers will want to go there. The observer of the daffodil has a lot to answer for!
” …further pressing Lucy to see the world as she does.” This line so struck me as the center to it all. I had forgotten about this novel. And what a penetrating and thought-provoking review. And, gosh, that daffodil …
LikeLiked by 1 person
Claire, the first paragraph was all it took to understand what a riveting read this would have been! The name Elena Ferrante sufficed. I love characters who bravely share their dark thoughts. It helps me to connect with them more. Lucy definitely sounds fascinating. Every book that you read makes me want to read it as well. As always, this is an insightful review, Claire. It’s fascinating to learn how to view the characters, how the story unfolds itself to you, and what you take away from them. Thank you!
It’s beautiful that our reading paths often meet. I am now currently reading Bernadine Evaristo’s ‘Mr Loverman’, and the narrator is from Antigua. I picked it up to participate in Black History Month.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Now there’s one I can add to my reading pile, I’ve read one of her earlier novels, but not Mr Loverman. I do have a particular fondness for Caribbean women writers, no matter where they end up. I think you’ll find Jamaica Kincaid extraordinary, even if her protagonists are often unlikeable. They strike at the heart of things and bring the weight of previous generations with them.
LikeLiked by 1 person
That’s such an interesting comparison you’ve made between Kincaid and Elena Ferrante, the similarities in the degree of honesty and openness in the prose styles in spite of the different cultural settings. I can tell from those quotes and your commentary just how skilled Kincaid must be with character, deftly portraying a richly imagined inner life with such feeling and intimacy.