Jamaica Kincaid is an author who has been on my radar for over a decade. Before a family holiday in Antigua, taken in 2008, I searched high and low for some of her novels, wanting to read at least one Antiguan author whilst away. However, my search was sadly a fruitless one.
It has, surprisingly, taken me the intervening twelve years to find a single copy of one of her books, as they never seem to be available in any bookshops which I peruse, or any of the several county library systems which I have used since. I finally found an affordable copy of her third novel, Lucy, which seemed like a great title to begin with, on AbeBooks, and began to read it almost as soon as it dropped through my letterbox.
Our named protagonist, nineteen years old and already world-weary, has left her home in the West Indies behind to become an au pair to ‘four small girls’ in the United States. She has left her ‘much loved, much hated mother, [and] her childhood self’ behind.
The novel begins in mid-January, when Lucy is trying to settle into a quite bewildering life in a big city. Everything is different, and new – using lifts, having a refrigerator, and staying in an apartment to name but three examples. Lucy comments: ‘… I could not see anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there were lights everywhere. As we drove along, someone would single out to me a famous building, an important street, a park, a bridge that when built was thought to be a spectacle. In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul…’.
Snow, too, is new to Lucy. She arrives in the United States during a very cold winter. She remembers that ‘the snow was the color and texture of a half-cooked egg white, making the world seem soft and lovely and – unexpectedly, to me – nourishing. That the world I was in could be soft, lovely, and nourishing was more than I could bear, and so I stood there and wept, for I didn’t want to love one more thing in my life, didn’t want one more thing that could make my heart break into a million little pieces at my feet.’
Throughout, Lucy tries to reconcile her new life, which she had so yearned for, with her old one. She reflects: ‘What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such a rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.’ She feels exiled from her past, and from her own country: ‘I looked at a map. An ocean stood between me and the place I came from, but would it have made a difference it had been a teacup of water? I could not go back.’
I loved the poetic prose in Lucy, and enjoyed the authentic first person perspective throughout. I really appreciated the somewhat cynical tone which suffuses the novel, and found Lucy a wonderfully unusual and unpredictable young woman. She often surprises with her comments and observations; she sees a lot of things in quite unexpected ways. She is unflinchingly honest; of her own position, she says: ‘I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.’
I quite enjoyed the geographical vagueness; we only know that Lucy has moved from one unnamed country to an unnamed city in another, and many of the landmarks with which the reader could identify both have been removed. Lucy comments: ‘I was born and grew up in a place that did not seem to be influenced by the tilt of the earth at all; it had only one season – sunny, drought-ridden. And what was the effect of growing up in such a place? I did not have a sunny disposition, and, as for actual happiness, I had been experiencing a long drought.’
The novel is slim yet powerful. It is structured as a series of short vignettes, which over time reveal our protagonist to us. Kincaid is a perceptive author, particularly with regard to the relationships formed between characters.
Lucy is a highly readable and transporting story, and I cannot wait to build up a collection of Kincaid’s work as soon as I can find more copies of her books. I can see that she could very quickly become a favourite author of mine.