The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

auto-of-my-motherThis novel felt similar to me as the only other book of Kincaid’s I’ve read, A Small Place. The prose is gorgeous, lyrical, haunting. It casts a spell. When I read A Small Place, an essay about Kincaid’s home of Antigua, I fell under the spell of the words and was captivated. But The Autobiography of My Mother felt vague and inaccessible. Despite the somewhat intense subject matter, I found myself struggling to stay engaged with the story, and once I’d finished the book, it was almost like I hadn’t read it. It left almost no impression.

Part of this may have been the audio. The narration by Robin Miles (a genuis) was superb, but the book is so slow and internal that audio may not have been the best form to experience it it. I found myself continually confused, but not interested enough to go back and re-listen to a passage.

The book concerns Xuela Claudette Richardson, a seventy-year-old West Indian woman looking back on her life. I found Xuela to be a fascinating character and the moments when I was most engaged with the story were the moments where her character shone through, where she focused on herself, rather than on the people around her–her father, her stepmother, her various lovers, her husband. Xuela recounts her unhappy childhood, her adolescence, her loveless marriage, her various relationships with men (some satisfying and some not), and her struggle to understand her mother, who died just after she was born. All of these individual relationships were rich, but they didn’t come to life in the text.

I think the main reason I had so much trouble with this novel had to do with its structure. There were almost no scenes. There was no dialogue. Everything was recounted by Xuela, from a distance, which made it hard for me to relate to anything that was happening. The whole book felt plotless, more of a soliloquy than a novel. There was no sharpness to it, no movement from one incident to the next, no momentum propelling the story forward, other than life itself, progressing.

Kincaid is talented writer and she’s got a lot to say in this novel about colonialism. Xuela is extremely smart and her observations–about her own life and the people in it, as well as the island itself, and especially the English colonizers–are sharp. Xuela also writes very bluntly about sex, which I found refreshing. All of these things made her a character who felt trapped and angry, who was rebellious, independent, and fierce. But despite all of Xuela’s reflections and commentary, she remained at a remove for me, never quite garnering my sympathy. Everything about her and her life seemed very far away. I never quite fell under the spell of the book.

I may have had better luck if I’d read it in print. It was one of those books whose beauty I appreciate, whose importance and nuance I can understand intellectually, but that didn’t move me emotionally. Kincaid’s writing is gorgeous enough that I plan on reading more of her work. Hopefully some of her other novels will be a better match for me than this one.

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