Kincaid Gives Cultural Twist To Coming-of-age Story

November 04, 1990|By JOAN MOONEY


Jamaica Kincaid.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

162 pages. $16.95. Jamaica Kincaid's new novel is a coming-of-age story with a cultural twist. The 19-year-old narrator has come from Antigua to Manhattan to be an au pair for a friendly, liberal couple with four daughters.

At first, everything is new to Lucy: using a refrigerator, living ian apartment instead of a house, taking an elevator to get to it, even living in a climate that has cold weather and snow. She has a hard time taking in so many new impressions. Lewis, the father of the children she cares for, calls her "the Visitor" because she seems to be just passing through.

It soon becomes clear that Lucy is full of bitterness and angerand the reason is partly bound up with her feelings about her mother. Lucy loves her deeply, and so was all the more hurt when she saw at an early age that her mother had much higher expectations for her three sons than for her only daughter:

"Whenever I saw her eyes fill up with tears at the thought of hoproud she would be at some deed her sons had accomplished, I felt a sword go through my heart, for there was no accompanying scenario in which she saw me, her only identical offspring, in a remotely similar situation."

Coming to America, Lucy has a chance to make herself ovecompletely. She takes full advantage of this opportunity, not evenopening her mother's letters because she knows they would make her unbearably homesick. The letters represent not only her mother who betrayed her and the familiar scenes she loves, but the whole history of an oppressed people.

"If I could put enough miles between me and the place from which that letter came, and if I could put enough events between me and the events mentioned in the letter, would I not be free to take everything just as it came and not see hundreds of years in every gesture, every word spoken, every face?"

Lucy's constant awareness of her colonial history carries oveinto her relations with Mariah, the mother of the children for whom she cares. Mariah wants very much to be Lucy's friend, buying her little presents and giving a party so she can meet somepeople her own age. But although Lucy loves Mariah, she doesn't want a second mother. She also realizes, as Mariah does not seem to, the innate inequality of the relationship.

It is no surprise that Lucy's unhappiness and harder life makher the stronger of the two women. When Lewis leaves Mariah for her best friend, Mariah is devastated, but Lucy is not surprised. She was taught from birth that men are unreliable. Her father's former lovers tried to kill both her and her mother, jealous because while he had many children, Lucy's mother was the one he chose to marry.

Although the events of the novel are few and sketchildescribed, Lucy makes many discoveries about herself and the world in the year the story covers. She plunges into the pleasures of sex, partly in rebellion against her mother, who wanted above all to prevent Lucy from becoming a slut.

In the end she makes another break as difficult as the one thabrought her to America. She writes that she is inventing herself; she is full of the confidence of the young, yet feels older than Mariah, who is twice her age. "I did not have position, I did not have money at my disposal. I had memory, I had anger, I had despair."

These words capture the rhythm of Lucy's speech, as theimeaning captures the tenor of her life. Using language that is deceptively simple, but hiding layers of meaning and years of history, Ms. Kincaid has given us a young woman who is complex and appealing, a real survivor.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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