May 2, 2008
Annie John, written by Jamaica Kincaid, represents a Bildungsroman/Caribbean novel – first published in 1985. The setting of the story takes place in the 1950s on the island of Antigua. What carries this novel is the protagonist who shares the same name as the title, Annie John. The novel recounts her interesting life from the age of ten to the age of seventeen.
Chapter one begins with a very detailed opening and depicts Annie John in a rather strange manner for her age. The opening introduces many occurrences, but one thing that overshadows them all is Annie John’s fixation with the dead at the age of ten. For a young girl, this behavior is very atypical. More unusual and unexplainable, she proclaims to be terrified of the dead: “I was afraid of the dead, as was everyone I knew” (4). However, it doesn’t stop her obsession. She stops by funerals to view the mourners and to get a sense of what memorial services feel like. One day, she becomes so curious that she attends a young girl’s funeral (hunchback girl), having no connection to the girl at all. Not only does she attend the funeral, but she causes a scene for the last viewing: “I stared at her a long time – long enough so that I caused the line of people waiting to stop by the coffin to grow long and on the verge of impatience” (11). Assuming that she was a friend of the dead girl, the mourners in the line say nothing.
For a child, Annie sure does have a strange – but age-appropriate – way of expressing her sadness facetiously, claiming that she never had a chance to touch the hunch on the girl’s back to check if it was hollow. Because of her exhilarating trip to the funeral, she gets home empty-handed, completely forgetting to bring the fish home for dinner that her mother had ordered her to get from the fisherman. When she realizes this, she fabricates a story, but her mom does not fall for it and knows the truth. Unbeknownst to Annie, the fisherman dropped off the fish after waiting so long. Lying and failing to obey her mother’s orders, Annie is sent outside to eat her dinner as a punishment.
Annie’s mom loves her, despite having to set rules for her to obey. In fact, they spend most of their time together when Annie is on break from school. When Annie takes a bath, sometimes her mom joins her in a bathtub that is filled with herbs that come from a local healer, the obeah woman. Her mother schools her on how to shop and find the best prices for products and clothing by taking her to the town. Annie is elated to shop with her mother; like every young girl, she admires and thinks her mother is beautiful and intelligent. However, while they are in public, Annie hears something that a child should never be exposed to, profanity. The profanity, aimed directly at Annie’s mom by a mad woman, stems from Annie’s father and his prior sexual relationships with various women. Mrs. John tries to protect her daughter by hiding Annie under her skirt, but it is useless because she hears the vulgar language regardless. Annie is smart enough to know that this woman (along with other women) detests her mother because her father had children with many of them. As a result, some of these women display their hatred by occasionally cursing at Annie’s mother, simply because she is married to the man that had fathered their children.
The love Annie has for her mother starts to diminish when one day she walks in on her parents having sex. Strangely, she gets angry and starts to look at her mother differently, feeling neglected by them both. As a reader, it is difficult to grasp this behavior from such a young girl. Along with Annie’s obsession with the dead in the opening, this has to be another strange occurrence, because it is very hard to believe that a young girl would be angry at her mother for not being involved in a sex act that takes place between adults. At any rate, Annie views her mother unkindly; it shows during dinner when she feels sickened when looking at her mother’s hands – hands that caressed her father’s back during sex. Annie also makes a rude remark that turns her mother off.
Annie becomes happy she will not be around her mother often, because she will be attending school soon. On her way to school, she is tense but thrilled. She gets to school and her homerun class and settles in. The teacher, Miss Nelson, announces the first assignment will be an original autobiography essay that will be read later in the day. The teacher deems Annie’s essay the best of them all and asks her for a copy to be posted in the classroom, where all can read it. She becomes happy and befriends one of the girls in her class named Gwen – and they become best friends.
Annie and Gwen do everything together and literally shadow each other’s moves. Like every best friend in school, they share girl secrets with each other; they walk to school and walk back home together; and of course, they act foolish together. Annie’s relationship with Gwen serves as a substitution for feeling neglected by her mother. Because Annie continues to excel in her school assignments and is the smartest student in her class, she gets rewarded: she is given authority over the other students when the teacher leaves the class. Moreover, she becomes popular with the girls in her class, for she stands up for them all.
Annie later befriends a girl known as the Red Girl, tomboyish and dirty. While Annie tries to get down a fruit on a tree by throwing rocks at it, the Red Girl climbs the tree and gets it down for her. This act of kindness precipitates their friendship. The Red Girl is quite the total opposite from Annie. She showers once a week; she combs her hair weekly; she wears tattered and stained clothing. The Red Girl, literally, embodies a filthy mess. Annie becomes envy of the Red Girl not for her filthiness, but for her freedom to do as she pleases and having no fixed rules.
Having a new friend to play and converse with, Annie finds her best friend Gwen to be tedious, so she spends more time with the Red Girl. She does not even tell Gwen about her. Annie actually turns more defiant to her mother’s orders by lying constantly to meet up with the Red Girl after school. Annie starts playing a marble game due to the Red Girl and gets good at the game, which wins her a lot of marbles; she then hides them from her mother under the house. Her mother knows about the few marbles and questions Annie about the rest of the stash, but Annie refuses to tell her anything. She is so connected to the unkempt girl that she starts stealing to give her presents. Eventually, their friendship ends when the Red Girl moves away.
Not only does Annie’s behavior get her in trouble with her mom, but it also follows her at school. In her history class one day, she develops boredom because she knows the material and reads ahead to see a picture of Christopher Columbus in chains. Under the picture, she writes: “The Great Man Can No Longer Move.” The teacher, Miss Edward, catches her defacement and offensive behavior and sends her to the principal office. The principal scolds her and then punishes her by stripping away her prefect status; moreover, she is ordered to copy Book I and Book II of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
After having a rough day at school, she returns home hoping to be comforted by her mother, but both her mother and father are too engrossed in each other – and fail to notice her sadness. At dinner time, Annie’s mom gives her a platter of breadfruit, a food that she really dislikes, so Annie rejects it. Her mother argues that it is not breadfruit but a new kind of rice. Finally, Annie gives in and eats it, consuming the obvious substance of breadfruit. She questions her mother thereafter and learns that she was tricked, and what she ate was indeed breadfruit. Because of this betrayal, Annie’s hatred for her mother grows tremendously.
At this juncture, Annie is fifteen years old. She feels distant from her mother in every way. She even has a strange recurring dream with words that twirl in her head: “My mother would kill me if she got the chance. I would kill my mother if I had the courage” (89). She finds comfort in going to school to get away from her mother. She continues to excel in school and is promoted to an upper level class with older girls. She feels out of place in the class which appears to be filled with superficial girls, but she remains focus on her studies and it pays off: she becomes one of the top two students in the class.
Her relationship with her best friend Gwen is still apparent: they walk home from school together and talk as usual. However, their relationship is not as robust as before and Annie knows that. Annie takes it a bit further by distancing her friendship with Gwen, due to the fact that Gwen advises that she marries her brother for them to be forever connected. This suggestion startles her to a point of avoiding Gwen whenever she sees her. One day, Annie’s avoidance after school takes her into town where she finds herself staring at her reflection through the glass of a clothing store. Filled with sadness, she criticizes and belittles herself by claiming to be ugly – so ugly she compares herself to a young Lucifer.
A few boys, four, see her standing alone and begin to tease her with laughter, a fitting behavior for young boys that are older than her. These boys are from the same boys’ branch of her school; she knows one of them from her younger years. Their continuous laughter causes her to walk away in sadness.
These boys would be the catalyst of an argument with her mother when she arrives home (that is, arriving late). Her mother approaches her and questions her angrily, asking why was she behaving herself badly in front of those boys. Coincidentally, while Annie took the shortcut from school, her mother makes it clear that she was present in the clothing store and saw everything. She claims that Annie flirted with them and presented unladylike behaviors. She argues otherwise, but her mother wants to hear nothing. Her mother escalates the argument and scolds her harshly by calling her a slut many times in French-patois.
In response, Annie fires back: “Well, like father like son, like mother like daughter.”
Silence quickly takes precedence between them both. Her mom finally utters that she always loved her until that comment and walks away in shock. Annie, on the other hand, walks to her bedroom feeling miserable.
Annie becomes very ill via a mental breakdown. Rather than going to school, she stays home and her parents care for her, because she can no longer take care of herself. Annie, literally, transforms into a baby. Strangely, as soon as Annie becomes bedridden, a rainstorm occurs. This is not any rainstorm; this represents a phenomenon that prolongs for three months and a half. Interestingly, this rainstorm drenches an island that has been suffering from a yearlong drought, but appears simultaneously with Annie’s illness.
Feeling feeble and delusional, Annie stays in her bed and listens to the raindrops. She gains so much connection to this rain that she only hears its sound and not the voice of her parents. In due course, her parents take her to the doctor. The doctor recommends an increased protein after finding nothing wrong with her. Her mother prepares a soup-like egg filled with rum. Still, her condition remains the same, so her mother ponders on obeah (i.e., a practice that involves magic, originally practiced in Africa and survives currently in parts of the Caribbean) to heal Annie. Against her father’s wishes, her mother decides to call a Dominican obeah woman named Ma Jolie who lives in Antigua. Her healing powers render no result, leaving Annie in her same condition. She even wets her bed like a child.
One day, out of nowhere, Annie’s grandmother Ma Chess strangely appears, when the ferryboat was not running, to cure her illness. Being that she is old, her grandmother knows more about obeah than Ma Jolie. However, she doesn’t use magic to revert her granddaughter to her normal self. Instead, she uses her affection. She stays in Annie’s room all day; she cuddles her like a baby, and sleeps at the base of her bed. She feeds, bathes and dresses Annie. Her grandmother never leaves her alone. From this care of attention and affection, Annie is healed after three months of rainfall. In a strange twist, as Annie recuperates, the rainfall ends. Annie herself questions the rainfall unexpected occurrence during her sickness: “I knew quite well I didn’t have the power to make the atmosphere feel as sick as I felt, but still I couldn’t help putting the two together.” Her grandmother, who mysteriously appears to cure her, leaves mysteriously on a day the ferryboat does not run.
After her sickness, her parents realize that she has grown taller than them. Thus, they buy her new clothes and shoes for school. Annie finally comes to accept and embrace that she and her mother are different, and no longer feels angry at their distant relationship. When she returns to school, she ignores all questions about her sickness and claims that the girls wish they were in her position. Basically, her attitude turns cold toward them, including her so called best friend Gwen. A friend that was so close was “now reduced to an annoying acquaintance,” according to Annie. What did Gwen do to cause this treatment from Annie? Absolutely nothing. However, for some reason, Annie feels obligated to view her differently and categorize her as an annoyance.
When Annie turns seventeen, she gains her freedom by moving out of her parents’ house. She makes the choice to leave Antigua to study nurse in England. She is happy that she will finally have her space and no longer will she be in the presence of her mother. But before Annie leaves, she agrees with her feelings to tell Gwen good-bye although she does not care for her genuinely. Thereafter, her parents walk with her through town where a ship awaits her. As she gets on the boat, she begins to have flashbacks of her early years living with her parents, but feels comfortable that she will begin a new life away from them. While on the boat, Annie waves to her parents; her parents wave back to her until they see her no more, a classic but fitting ending for a teenager that seeks independence away from her parents.
This novel typifies a fascinating story, but it is not a cohesive novel. Some occurrences appear to happen without any reason, and the timing at times seems off and out of order. The character Annie John (the narrator) keeps the novel flowing, however. She is lovable, uncanny, hilarious, intelligent, devious, and embody some characteristics of a lesbian. It almost appears as if she has an old soul.
It’s a great novel for teenagers who struggle with their parents and try to find their own identity and autonomy, especially young female teenagers. The mother-daughter relationship makes the novel intriguing and serves as the main theme. They fight, argue and disagree, motifs that most women can relate to when they were the age of Annie.
Age-appropriate for all readers, ANNIE JOHN by Jamaica Kincaid represents a good coming-of-age novel and is filled with metaphorical overtones, especially with water (e.g., the bathing, the rainstorm, the sea, the boat) which serves as growth for Annie. Moreover, Kincaid’s writing should be described as simply marvelous, rendered with detailed imagery. There may be some confusion and inconsistencies; nonetheless, it’s a thought-provoking piece that makes one think and question why some things occur the way they do. With 148 pages (depending on which version one has) and eight interesting chapters, this novel can be tackled in two days with time management.