Thursday, March 05, 2009

CRC 2: "Annie John"

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, published 1985.

Annie John is a short novel (I believe the individual chapters were originally published as short stories in The New Yorker) that traces the coming-of-age of a young Antiguan girl from the age of 10 to the age of 17, narrated in first person by Annie herself.  However, the focus seems rather different than that of most coming-of-age novels with which I'm familiar, as much of the work concentrates on Annie's growing alienation from her mother, a central thematic core which embodies the idea of developing adolescence as a loss of paradise.  At the beginning of the novel, Annie's mother treats Annie as the focus of her life, the person on whom she lavishes almost constant attention.  However, as Annie grows older, her mother's attitude changes, and she treats Annie as a person who is maturing and is no longer the child she was earlier; the reader recognizes that this change is an inevitable and necessary one, but Annie sees it only as a betrayal, an emotional abandonment, and becomes angry and resentful in consequence.  She begins to attempt to punish her mother by refusing to do things her mother praises her for and giving vent to outbursts of anger in which she abuses her mother; not surprisingly, her mother reacts with disappointment and hurt, which in turn only make Annie feel guilty and increases her anger.

At the same time, of course, Annie is going through other difficult and trying changes in her life; she enters a more advanced school where she often excels academically but frequently disappoints her teachers by her unruly conduct behind their backs; she makes new friends but finds after a while that she has outgrown them. She particularly cannot understand their growing interest in boys; whether this element of the novel is intended to suggest that she is not heterosexual (a couple of brief articles and reviews I looked at indicate this is a distinct possibility) is never entirely clear; in any event, she certainly differs from her peers in regard to their interest in boys, marriage, homemaking, and raising families  -- things she indicates she will never pursue.

Additionally, her life is further complicated by an illness of several months' duration which leaves her for a time bed-ridden and subject to apparent hallucinations.  The doctor assures her parents that there is no detectable physical cause for her illness; the suggestion seems to be that she is possibly suffering from an attack of clinical depression.  

The novel ends with Annie's conflicts with her mother unresolved.  Having graduated, Annie is leaving Antigua for England where she is to undergo training as a nurse; her real desire, however, is simply to escape from what she views as a claustrophobic  environment, and she vows to herself never to return, even though her mother's parting words to her are "It doesn't matter what you do or where you go, I'll always be your mother and this will always be your home."  For Annie, the paradise she knew as a child has vanished, and she no longer feels she has a place in or ties to Antigua.

I have recently read a number of coming-of-age novels which focus on young girls entering into maturity -- Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez, among others -- but Annie John is by far the most interesting of them all, I feel, primarily because of the focus on the conflict with her mother.  There are no simple or easy answers for Annie John, and she carries with her into her future the conflict she's experienced during her adolescence, a conflict completely unresolved.  One can only wonder what her future is going to be.


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