Kincaid's 'My Brother': elusive closure

October 05, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

"My Brother," by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 193 pages. $21.

Antigua-born novelist Jamaica Kincaid has earned an enviable reputation as a writer of lucid, tantalizing prose that nevertheless manages to conceal as much as it reveals. This elegantly wrought memoir, which recounts her younger brother's death from AIDS, is a tragic meditation on the unknowable in oneself and others.

The book opens with Kincaid returning to Antigua to visit her brother in his hospital room. He has never left the island, as she has, and when she arrives he is pitifully emaciated and fading fast. She has brought with her a supply of the drug AZT, easily obtained in her new home in Bennington, Vt., but unavailable anywhere on Antigua because its apathetic officials are are too absorbed by corruption to pay much attention to the looming public health crisis.

Soon she is caught up in all the old conflicts that caused her to flee her mother's house for America 20 years earlier. Her mother's love was tyrannical and unstinting, a combination that she found eventually unbearable.

Her relationship with her brother is profoundly ambivalent as well. She has no fond childhood memories of him because she left Antigua when he was only 3. So far as she can tell, his life has been one of self-indulgence and dissipation, his only occupations drinking, smoking pot and womanizing.

Still, she is heartened at first by the apparent improvement that results from the AZT. Her brother leaves the hospital and for a while seems his old self again. But she is shocked when he has casual, unprotected sex with a trampy Grenadan girl, and indignant at his indifference to the possible consequences of the act. She wishes that she could love him unreservedly, as her mother obviously does, yet the disorderliness of his life repels her. When he suffers a relapse several months later, part of her secretly wishes that he would simply die and end the family's ordeal.

When the end finally arrives, she is in Chicago on a book tour. Her brother's death, however, also suddenly brings to light completely unsuspected aspects of his character that suggest the desperate loneliness of his short life. And so the author is left to ponder the cruelly limited franchise of understanding and compassion any human being can have for another.

Readers of Kincaid's short stories and novels have become accustomed to Kincaid's unflinching assessments of familial relationships. Here she makes explicit the yawning psychological gulf between her comfortable life in America and her Caribbean origins.

This is a decidedly literary memoir, filled with tropes that resonate the author's powerfully ambivalent apprehension of love, loyalty, family and the finality of death. The author tells us at the outset that writing is her way of coping with unfinished business. Structurally, the book unfolds a straightforward progression of conflict, crisis and resolution. Yet the death of a brother, even one little known and hardly loved, is scarcely to be resolved by narrative. One is left with the feeling for all her trying, closure still eludes Kincaid.

Glenn McNatt, an arts columnist and feature writer for The Sun, taught high school English before coming to The Sun in 1985.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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