Book Review — Lucy (1990) by Jamaica Kincaid

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

Lucy is a migrant story, and in 1990, when Lucy was first published, there were fewer novels like it being published by houses as revered as Farrar, Straus and Giroux (one-time home to Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth and others), or indeed published at all. In the interim, writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Nam Le and others have claimed literary space at major houses with brilliant migrant stories, demonstrating with each new book just how ill-equipped a blanket term like “migrant stories” is for the myriad experiences of the literally billions of migrants now in motion around the world. To make a not insignificant generalisation, however, they have often shared a theme: rifts in the heart and self caused by distance from one’s homeland, be that a country of origin or a country in which you find yourself a first generation citizen.

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It is interesting, then, to read a book like Lucy, a novel from the perspective of a young woman from the West Indies who comes to America to au pair for a white couple, which was originally published in chapters in the New Yorker, and find in it a voice more direct, angry and uncompromising than those we now hear acclaimed on an annual basis. There is something palpably trailblazing about Lucy.

I had just begun to notice that people who knew the correct way to do things such as hold a teacup, put food on a fork and bring it to their mouth without making a mess on the front of their dress—they were the people responsible for the most misery, the people least likely to end up insane or paupers.

Even a cursory glance at Kincaid’s upbringing would reveal that Lucy is heavily autobiographical. And the more you read about Kincaid, the clearer the autobiography becomes: Kincaid was an au pair, she did not send the money home as she was expected to, and even before she changed her name and began to write for the New Yorker, she avoided all contact with her Antiguan family.

The character of Lucy, regardless of her similarities to Kincaid, is a fascinating and compelling narrator, bent on discovering her own sexuality, jealously claiming an interesting life, and on holding a foolish Western society to account for its self-involved opulence and delusional self-pity. Lucy is at once magnificent and pitiable, a snarling animal you want to hug. She is torn throughout between love for her mother and an urgent, almost violent need to distance herself from her – she does not answer her letters, or even read them. In many of Lucy’s actions, a spoken or unspoken motive is placing distance between the woman her mother was and the woman Lucy will be.

The other people sitting down to dinner all looked liked Mariah’s relatives; the people waiting on them all looked like mine. … Mariah did not seem to notice what she had in common with the other diners, or what I had in common with the waiters. She acted in her usual way, which was that the world was round and we all agreed on that, when I knew that the world was flat and if I went to the edge I would fall off.

The real heart of this novel, though, and the reason it is a great one, is that Kincaid is not using it to self-justify. She is reflecting on this young woman’s choices with the understanding a longer life has brought. Into Lucy’s actions and thoughts, Kincaid writes the fury and pain of a neglected and under-appreciated child, a girl who was expected to be a nurse as her brothers were told they would be ministers, lawyers and doctors. And as much as she rightly celebrates Lucy for her fierce independence of mind and spirit, Kincaid also accentuates with masterful bluntness the tragedy in her self-imposed exile from her home and only mother, and the irreparable toll that exile took on her spirit.

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I wanted to die in a hot place. The only hot place I knew was my home. I could not go home, and so I could not die yet.

Lucy is the second-last book I’ll read and review this year as part of my reading project (I’m more than halfway through Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, which will be the last), and it is only the third I’ve read this year that was authored by a writer of colour. As I’ll try to examine in a reflective piece, there are non-gender-based biases, prime examples of intersectionality (a totally and necessarily ubiquitous term in 2015), that pervaded this project. But one of the key benefits of confronting even one form of inequality is that the conversations one has and reading one does around that action lead to awareness of other unconscious biases. Discrimination takes place by degrees, and the clearer you see them, the easier it is to to deny them a place in your world.

As much as my reading more books by women will be a result of this project, so will be an awareness that even among books by women voices like Kincaid’s do not ring as loud. I do not think it at all a coincidence, for example, that I heard about Kincaid because Edwidge Danticat and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, two female writers of colour, chose to read her work on the New Yorker fiction podcast. Where they were my introduction to this brilliant short story writer and novelist, perhaps this review can be your prompt to count the number of writers of colour, male or female, on your shelves, and decide if there are unconscious biases you could be counteracting. If you need a recommendation, Lucy is excellent, and I hear Kincaid’s first novel, Annie John, is a masterwork too.

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