Coming of Age
The book is a collection of eight short stories connected by the same narrator, Annie John, who tells stages of her own growth from age ten to seventeen. She notes the many changes in her life, especially those associated with pain and loss. Though she seems to have a stable home and does not live in want or poverty, she still finds the journey from childhood to adolescence to be so distressful she has a breakdown at one point. Annie chronicles with clear memory the time of closeness to her parents, especially her mother, whom she worshiped as a child. When she is twelve, Annie begins the separation from parental closeness when the mother starts insisting it is time for her to grow up and do things differently.
The break is initiated by the mother in her attempt to help her daughter make a transition to being a woman. She will not let the daughter dress just like her anymore. She makes her take lessons so she will learn manners and adult behavior. Once Annie gets the point that she cannot hang on to the mother the same way, she becomes angry and purposely makes the gap wider and wider. As a child she was a mere refrain of the mother, with the same build, the same name, clothes made from the same material. The mother had pampered the daughter as the center of her world, and Annie had thought it would always be this way. As she becomes a teen, Annie resents that she is no longer the center of the world. She must now learn to deal with others and to make her own choices and live with her own mistakes. In her bitterness, she lies and hides what she is doing in order to have her own private life. This was not her choosing, but if this is what her mother wants, then she is going to have her revenge by shutting her mother out.
Annie's private life revolves around her growing independence, curiosity, and sexual maturation. She no longer takes parental advice, deciding to try things on her own. Soon, she is doing the opposite of whatever her mother says. Her mother says marbles are terrible, so she becomes a champion with a huge supply of hidden marbles. Her mother approves of the nice Gwen as a friend, but not the wild and dirty Red Girl whom Annie loves passionately and steals for to buy her presents. She thus tests for herself everything she has been told was truth. The stories begin to take on a tone of voice that is more and more cynical and angry as she tries to find her own truth, her own life. The breakdown comes not only because Annie misses the closeness to her mother but also because she can hardly bear the lie she is living as she grows older. She has to wear a mask at home, acting as though things are as they were with her parents; meanwhile, inside, she feels she and her parents are enemies. She feels her mother is trying to kill her.
This feeling is not uncommon as a person comes of age. The parent is shoving the child out of the nest and yet insisting on obedience to the parents' way of doing things. The young person feels the conflicting message, leading to the necessity of finding a separate identity. Maturation is a process of separation. It can be lonely, with much misunderstanding, as the generations become more distinct.
In the last story, “A Walk to the Jetty,” in which she boards a boat for England and her future, she repeats over and over, “My name is Annie John” (p. 130) to assert she is her own person now. Though she goes through the familiar rituals with the parents one last time, she understands that she is different now. She is taller than they are and walks apart from them. They do not know her. They assume she will do what they have taught her, little understanding that she is someone quite unknown to them. This drama of separation from parents and background is the familiar one of growing up. It seems to be more painful to those who are sensitive as Annie is. Yet, though loss of childhood is common to everyone, for some it is viewed with nostalgia, while for Annie the past is painful, and she never wants to remember it after she leaves. The impression is that her life in Antigua has become entirely too small for her, too tame, too conditioned, conventional, and unreal.
Loss of Mother
Loss of the mother is central to the story. It is the central trauma of Annie's life. Hers is not the normal growing up and away from the mother. She chronicles step by step the horror of separation from the person who was most important to her, who she feels betrayed her love. She can never forget this first love affair. For a westerner, the extreme closeness of Annie and her mother might seem a little exotic, but in some cultures, mother nurturing is extremely physical, with the mother present every moment of the day, not away at work. Annie's mother seems saintly in the beginning. She shows her daughter how much she is loved, making her food, her clothes, saving her mementos, being proud of her successes, telling her stories about herself. The child is always with her. She takes extreme care of the daughter, including all kinds of medicinal remedies from the obeah women, special baths, and constant attention. All this Annie luxuriates in. She tells how she worships her mother, noting every expression of her face, her clothes, her hair style. Every story of her mother's has entered her soul. She wants to be just like her, and is alarmed when her mother tells her of the day she will grow up and have her own separate house.
At the age of twelve, the first break is when the mother will not allow her to have a dress from the same material. They had dressed as twins until then. The next betrayal is that she cannot learn from her mother how to be an adult; she must go to classes to learn manners and the piano. Then the mother starts to show disapproval and judgment where before the child was always accepted as beloved. Her mother's tone of voice changes toward her. The intimacy is lost. She feels contradictions in her mother's attitude towards her and begins to distrust her. This leads to her lying. When the mother finds out about the marbles, she shames Annie in front of her father. She misunderstands her talking to the boys on the street, thinking she is going to be a slut.
Every step feels irrevocable to the daughter, like one more nail in her coffin. When she fights over a pair of shoes to wear to communion, she tells her mother she wishes she were dead. Her mother appears to get ill from her curse. They can never go back to the lost paradise of love. Now, her mother's constant gaze is like that of a policeman that must be outwitted. Annie learns to be two-faced. This might be one cause of the depression and breakdown. She speaks as if her mother too has a dark center of depression, and that both of them play a game of surface love but secret hatred toward one another.
All this is from the child's point of view. The mother's side of the story is never presented. It is difficult to use any sort of regular psychoanalysis on this behavior of mother and daughter because Annie is always a direct and innocent narrator, never philosophizing or speculating about the changes. The split with the mother is a great existential mystery to her, presented like a disaster movie where the ship is sinking in the background while the people are smiling and acting normally on the shore.
Hostility to Colonialism
Annie's maturation becomes obvious to the reader, if not to her parents, during her recounting of school memories. At home she is still immersed in native culture, where obeah women practice their magic and healing remedies, and her mother and father make all their own clothes and furniture. At school, run by the English in Antigua, the native Annie instinctively puts two and two together to understand that she is a child of colonialism. She is not impressed by her English teachers. Miss Moore, the headmistress, is a “prune left out of its jar a long time” (p. 36). Mr. Slacks, from Canada, is “dingy-toothed” (p. 73). Miss Edward, the history teacher, moves around like “an eclipse” (p. 75). She makes the student with the lowest grades wear a dunce cap in the shape of a crown, suggesting the British crown. The most stupid girl in class, ironically, is Ruth, a white girl from England, whose parents are missionaries. Annie is the head of the class, class prefect, until she slips and makes fun of Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the new world, a founder of the European colonial period. Their history textbook has an illustration of Columbus in chains in a boat being sent back to Spain in disgrace at the end of his third voyage. Annie loves this picture for she hates Columbus. She writes a caption under it, something her mother said about her own father who had lost the use of his legs: “So, the great man can no longer just get up and go!” Annie writes this in an old English script about Columbus. She is sent to the headmistress for this crime and demoted to second place in class. The episode shows her growing sense of sarcasm and irony. She is not one of the students who just memorizes what the foreign culture dictates. She is thinking for herself.
Native Culture vs. Foreign Culture
The difference between native culture and foreign culture appears throughout the book, though not always in a politically charged sense. They just exist side by side in Annie's understated sense of irony. Annie paints scenes with the Anglican church bell ringing while sheep and hens are parading through their yard. The English doctor looks at Annie and finds nothing wrong, while the obeah women give her all sorts of herbs and ceremonies. Her grandmother, Ma Chess, is furious that her son died being treated by western medicine because her husband would not let her treat him with obeah medicine. Everywhere, the young girls are being taught how to be proper in the English way, but their native sexual urges are ignored. They expose their breasts to moonlight to make them grow. Monogamy is an imposed ideal, for two of the fishermen share the same wife, and Annie's father has several other illegitimate children and many unofficial wives. Annie tells stories of being a Brownie swearing allegiance to the Union Jack and other activities imported from western culture that seem somewhat ludicrous in the Caribbean setting she lives in.
All this double culture is confusing at times, for Annie sometimes prefers and sometimes hates western culture. Her favorite book is Jane Eyre, and she wants to go to Belgium. She does not like the practices of obeah women, and yet it was her obeah grandmother who knew how to heal her when everyone else had given up on her. Postcolonial authors, like Kincaid, point out the difficulties of identity when having two cultures, one imposed from without. Annie says, “It was hard for us to tell on which side we really now belonged—with the masters or the slaves—for it was all history” (p. 76).