Have you ever retold a story from your childhood? There were certain things you emphasized (hey, childhood is vivid) and others you left out or just plain forgot, right? Well, Annie John is about remembering the past. All the verbs are in the past tense as every event, situation or circumstance described in the book is a memory. We can assume that our narrator, Annie, is remembering these moments of childhood as an adult.
I don't know why seeing that [barge] struck me so, but suddenly a wave of strong feeling came over me, and my heart swelled with a great gladness as the words "I shall never see this again" spilled out inside me. But then, just as quickly, my heart shriveled up and the words "I shall never see this again" stabbed at me. I don't know what stopped me from falling in a heap at my parents' feet. (8.17)
Not only is the tone reflective, but also it is often nostalgic and sentimental, especially when she recalls early moments of blissful existence with her mother:
How important I felt to be with my mother. (2.4)
She writes with the sentiment of childhood, while using aspects of the knowing nostalgia of adulthood: Kinkaid may know better now, but she still remembers how strong her feelings of love (and later hatred) were in those awkward years between childhood and adulthood.
Annie starts this novel as a naïve, sweet young girl of ten. She finishes the novel as an independent, strong woman of seventeen about to start her new life in England.
Yessirree Bob: the description of "bildungsroman" fits Annie John like a glove. Or, rather, fits her like the successive pairs of gloves she needs to wear as her hands grow larger throughout adolescence.
Before Boyhood, before Juno and before Bend It Like Beckham there was Annie John. It holds fast the to genre elements of a good old fashioned coming of age story: nostalgia, sadness, fear of the future and the bored-out-of-your-skull hatred of the same ol' same ol' that propels you into the future despite your fear.
Oh, man. This one's tough. We don't have the faintest clue, actually.
Ahh, we jest. The title is, well, the protagonist's name. We see the world through Annie John's eyes and the book is titled Annie John.
But that's not all there is to this novel. The title Annie John, like the novel Annie John, is deceptively simple. It's not just about being Annie John; it's about becoming Annie John. Her name isn't mentioned for the first few chapters, and it's only in the last chapter of the novel that she speaks her name out loud. She (quite literally) is not named as Annie John until she starts coming into her own as Annie John. This is a novel about growing into an identity rather than being born into one.
Dagnabbit, Jamaica Kinkaid. Why do you have to be so subtly brilliant all the time?
Some critics have complained about the abruptness of the ending: the book doesn't tie everything up in a nice, neat bow at the end. The eighth and final chapter ends with Annie boarding a ship that will eventually take her to England to study nursing.
Annie admits that she isn't crazy about nursing, but she just wants to burn rubber to get away from her room, her father, her mother, the permanent island sunshine… basically life as she has known it up until age seventeen.
On the ship, Annie exchanges elaborate goodbyes with her parents and her mother holds her close in an embrace and says:
"It doesn't matter what you do or where you go, I'll always be your mother and this will always be your home." (8.19)
So sweet. But wait, there's more. Annie completely undoes the sentiment of this moment; in the next paragraph she and her mother "looked at each other for a long time with smiles on our face, but I know the opposite of that was in my heart" (8.20). The ambiguity that pervades throughout Annie John rears its ugly head once again. What's the deal? Does Annie hate her mother? Does she love her? Is Annie just a spoiled brat?
This ending provokes questions, rather than giving us answers. In a way, it succeeds in prolonging the story for us, forcing us to wonder "What was that all about" long after we've put our copy of Annie John back on the shelf.
Antigua was still a British colony at the time this novel is set, and this climate (both the tropical one and the Colonial one) is the backdrop to the events of this novel. There is a strong British influence on everything that happens on the island: from government down to the curriculum at school. This is, frankly, oppressive.
Maybe that's not entirely surprising—Postcolonial literature is rife with the apt thesis statement "Wow, Colonialism sure is tyrannical." But what is surprising—at least for those of us who live out half the year with frantic daydreams of tropical islands because there are no two words more horrific than "wintry mix"—is that Antigua's climate is also oppressive.
Sure, it's beautiful. There are guava trees and fresh fish every day. The sea is always nearby. The sun is already high in the sky early in the morning. But it never changes. Never. Changes. Never.
This is less a damning statement on the climate of Antigua and more a reflection of the psychological climate of our Annie John. She needs and craves change. And Antigua, with its constant stifling heat, ain't going to give her the change she craves.
The language in Annie John is deceptively simple. What does this mean? Well, for starters, you probably will not have to consult your dictionary too much. Most of the vocabulary is pretty easy-peasy. So where's the deception, you ask?
When you begin reading, you may wonder, "Does anything ever actually happen in this book?" If you're pressed for time, like most busy students are, the straightforward prose and the longish sentences and paragraphs may even tempt you, to skim, breeze through or even skip what might seem like digressions or tangents. You might say to youself, "Oh, she's just talking about what her mother puts in her bath water here or where she hides her marbles. I can skip that part, right?" Wrong.
Doing that would be cheating yourself of the quiet beauty that is Annie John. If you started reading the novel waiting for something big to happen, you're barking up the wrong tree, buddy. There are no explosions, no major life-changing deaths or wars or love affairs. In many ways it's a small story about growing up.
Our suggestion is to read Annie John like a poem. Revel in the tangents, asides, stories-with-a-story. Make note of the imagery, the patterns. What repeats? How many different ways does Annie tell the same story? Settle in to the tempo of Annie's world and enjoy the scenery.
No, we don't mean that it's full of seventh grade-style spelling errors or that it's written on (shudder) binder paper. Kinkaid is a master of characterization, and she manages to write, stylistically, in the manner of an adolescent's thought processes.
We're sure that in those first weird years of puberty you felt insane swings of emotion. One day you were up, up, up and the next you felt as if your heart had been run over by a steamroller. Kinkaid knows how that feels, and so does her creation Annie John:
When my eyes rested on my father, I didn't think very much of the way he looked. But when my eyes rested on my mother, I found her beautiful. Her head looked as if it should be on a sixpence. What a beautiful long neck, and long plaited hair, which she pinned up around the crown of her head because when her hair hung down it made her too hot. Her mouth, moving up and down as she ate and talked at the same time, was such a beautiful mouth I could have looked at it forever if I had to and not mind. (2.8)
Holy emotional incontinence, Batman! Mom isn't just beautiful, she's omgthemostbeauteouscreatureeverilovehersomuchithurts. And when the tables turn, poor Annie is crushed. She doesn't stray away from extremes in pain, either:
I immediately said how much I loved this piece of cloth and how nice I thought it would look on both of us, but my mother replied, "Oh, no. You are getting too old for that. It's time you had your own clothes. You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me." To say that I felt the earth swept away form under me would not be going too far. (2.14)
Yeah, "to say that I felt the earth swept away form under me would not be going too far" is, actually, going too far. The earth did not sweep out from under you, Annie. You just felt bereft.
But dang if we the reader don't feel every uptick and downswing of Annie John's emotional journey. That's because Kinkaid keeps us fully in the mind (and heart) of an adolescent Annie John. It's an exhausting place to be… but it's never dull.
Much of Annie John centers on a psychological journey, a journey of the mind. Annie John experiences a period of deep sadness that we would most likely call depression—or possibly just teenage angst, if you're feeling tough-love about it. The metaphor she uses to describe this dark period is that of having swallowed a thimble: a small metal cap usually worn over a finger while sewing.
For Annie, "[t]he thimble that weighed the world spun around and around; as it spun, it bumped up against my heart, my chest, my stomach, and whatever it touched felt as if I had been scorched there" (6.18). Why would Annie use an instrument for sewing to talk about her sadness?
Well, this metaphor points to the domesticity that her mother values above all else. Her mother plays by an older set of rules, and those rules are rooted in strict gender norms. Women (including the now-adolescent Annie John) are supposed to stay in the sphere of the home and dedicate themselves to becoming happy and efficient homemakers.
Annie's sadness springs out of the fact that she doesn't really want this. She doesn't want to grow up, but she doesn't want to grow up because growing up means leaving the relative androgyny of childhood behind. It means giving up masculine pursuits and playtime. Annie John is fine with a lot of aspects of growing up—she excels at sports and is an awesome student—but she doesn't like the idea of domestic servitude.
So maybe that's why her sadness manifests as a heavy, red-hot thimble. Annie needs only to go away and pursue a career (like nursing, maybe?) and the thimble will dissolve… or at least go back to the sewing kit or Monopoly board where it belongs.
Originally brought over from Dominica (Annie's mother's home) this yellow and green wooden trunk contains mementos from the entirety of Annie's life—from her baby clothes to special embroidered blankets that her mother made her. Annie's mother tells beautiful stories about her daughter using the items in this trunk as props.
Part of the significance of the trunk in the novel is how many times the story of the trunk is repeated. It is first mentioned in Chapter 1 when we first learn the story of how and why Annie's mother leaves her family home for Antigua "after quarreling with her father" (1.9). In Chapter 6, "Somewhere, Belgium," Annie remembers:
It was the trunk that my mother had bought when she was sixteen years old—a year older than I was now—and in which she had packed all her things and left not only her parents' house in Dominica but Dominica itself for Antigua. (6.27)
The trunk is both a warm reminder of home and a suffocating representation of her mother's conditional love for her. Her mother puts away things that she wants to remember about Annie's life, which makes Annie feel as though her life were in her mother's hands. She is denied agency over her own life story as long as she lives within spitting distance of this trunk.
Inside this trunk now were the things, all of them, that had been a part of my life at every stage, and if someone had come upon it without having an inkling of what my life had really been like, they would have got a pretty good idea. (6.27)
At this moment, when Annie is fifteen years old, the trunk signifies the possibility of liberation and she asks her father to make her "own trunk" (6.31). After all, her mother was only one year older when she boldly left her family home and moved away. Once Annie has asked her father to build her her own trunk, we know that Annie is not long for Antigua.
Obvious statement alert: water is a key element on Earth. Water is also a key element in Annie John. There's water water everywhere, and yeah there are drops to drink… but the symbolically important stuff is bathwater so eew: don't drink it.
One of the first key bonding experiences between Annie and her mother is the special bath that Mom prepares for them to ward off the bad spirits. Annie takes a full bath every morning and a sponge bath at night. Annie's mother even prepares special bath water with bark for her husband that she leaves over night so it will be cold with dew.
The whole family is squeaky-clean, because her mother seriously believes that cleanliness is next to Godliness. No, really: this hygiene-consciousness and these spirit-repelling baths keep the John clan free from spiritual danger.
This obsession with bathing (which, to be fair, is one of the worlds best and most relaxing activities) definitely makes a mark on young Annie. When she has a super-high fever she sees the photographs of her family "dancing"—she's totally off her head and hallucinating—and decides that the best way to take care of these creepy dancing photos is to wash them:
I washed [the family photographs] thoroughly with soap and water, digging into all the crevices, trying, with not much success, to straighten out the creases in Aunt Mary's veil, trying, with not much success, to remove the dirt from the front of my father's trousers. (7.15)
This is Annie's illness-addled brain making symbolic loop-de-loops. She knows that there is something amiss with her family. Her parents and grandmother are worried sick about her being sick, and nothing between her and her mother has been right since her adolescence began. So she turns to the method of "making things right" that's she's been brought up with. If it's broke don't fix it—bathe it.
She's actually being really sweet and loving at the same time that she's being a total weirdo. She's trying to make everything right. But she ends up destroying family mementos: oops.
But hey, who hasn't done insane things when they've had high fevers or, even more hilariously, after their wisdom teeth have been pulled?
Annie John is the first-person narrator and the main protagonist of this novel. As readers, we are privy to Annie's thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, and hopes for the future as she embarks on her coming-of-age journey.
Not only is there the constant "I" throughout the text, but there is also the "my" of the text. Can you count how many times Annie says "my mother"? What's the larger significance of young Annie thinking her mother as her possession?
Annie is young, curious about the world and madly in love with her mother. When we first meet Annie, she's a ten-year-old precocious girl with a scientific curiosity. She wants to know how life and especially death work in the world. As Annie's body starts to change and develop, she finds herself rejected by (and rejecting of) the comfortable life of attention and affection from her mother.
In Annie's new world order, in which she receives the cold shoulder from her mother and her body is betraying her, she excels at school and meets a gaggle of new friends. This includes the illustrious Gwen (her new bestie and replacement for her mother) and the foul-smelling yet beguiling Red Girl who encourages her to do forbidden activities like playing marbles.
Eventually, even Annie's new friends disappoint her. As Annie grows older and her academic performance pushes her to a higher class, she not only feels a mild hatred toward her mother, but also begins to tire of her new friends. Gwen doesn't excite her anymore and is downright annoying at times with her schoolgirl giggle. She even fantasizes about killing her mother.
During a three-month downpour, Annie suffers from a terrible illness. As helpless as a baby, she cannot leave her bedroom and spends most of time resting in bed or seeing crazy visions. Her parents cater and care for Annie during this time. Neither Dr. Stephen's medicine nor Ma Jolie's obeah seem to help and Annie seems doomed.
Ma Chess's obeah knowledge, superior to that of Ma Jolie, saves the day and her granddaughter's life. She slips out just as mysteriously as she appears. When Annie's health returns, the rain stops. She reevaluates her life and decides to leave her island home and move to England to study nursing and start a new life.
So Annie splits, but is it for good? Will our heroine ever return to her birthplace? Kincaid leaves her readers guessing on this point as the book ends with her in her cabin onboard the ship.
Annie John is ten years old and has an intensely close relationship with her mother. This is an awesome mama-daughter relationship, full of affection and devotion. Fueled by her mother's loving care and guidance, Annie feels completely safe and happy. Like Peter Pan, Annie does not want to grow up or share her mother's love with anyone. During the summer, she becomes obsessed with death and children dying.
But by age twelve, Annie has a growth spurt and needs all new clothes for school. Her mother doesn't allow her to wear dresses that match her own anymore because Annie is now "becoming a young woman" and will one day have her own household. Annie feels rejected by her mother's cold behavior and her refusal to wear super-cute mother-daughter outfits. Annie also starts menstruating and starts attending a new school.
One day, Annie walks in on her parents in an ambiguous scene in which they are embracing and possibly knockin' boots in their bed. Annie sees her mother's "circling hand" on the small of her father's back, and after this, she can never look at her mother the same way. She no longer loves her the way she used to; "I was sure I could never let those hands touch me again; I was sure I could never let her kiss me again. All that was finished" (2.21).
This is a huge departure from Annie's earlier feelings for her mother...she previously viewed her as saintly. She vacillates between being repulsed by her mama and thinking that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.
By the end of the first day at her new school, Annie develops strong feelings of love for a girl in her class named Gwen. They walk arm in arm to and from school everyday and are "love birds." They tell each other their deepest secrets and can do no wrong in each other's eyes. It is a strong sisterhood (or possibly a budding romance) and Annie wonders if she should tell Gwen about her changing feelings for her mother.
Then, Annie meets the Red Girl, the antithesis of everything Annie's mother has trained her to be. The Red Girl is dirty and mangy. Partially out of an act of defiance and partially just because the heart wants what the heart wants, Annie loves the Red Girl deeply. She begins to steal books, deface school property (a Columbus picture), and play marbles. Basically, she rages against the machine and declares war on her mother and her mother's moral codes, ethics and standards of behavior. Throughout all this, she's still an excellent student in the classroom.
During a season of unexpected heavy rains after a draught, Annie falls seriously ill. Annie is bedridden and has visions. She's near death. She's as helpless as an infant and her mother and father treat her as one, changing her wet clothes, bedding, cleaning up for her after she makes a mess, holding her and carrying her to the doctor.
After destroying the family photographs in her bedroom during a hallucination, Annie cannot be left alone. Her mother cannot carry out her daily chores and her neighbors have to help her and the fish for family dinners is delivered to them.
Ma Chess, Annie's grandmother, is an obeah woman who comes to cure her mysterious illness. Completely taking over her mother's duties, Ma Chess sweeps in and succeeds where Annie's mother, Dr. Stephens (the town doctor), and even Ma Jolie, the local obeah woman failed.
Ma Chess lives in Dominica and arrives in Antigua without notice, and on a day the boat wasn't expected. She sleeps on the floor in Annie's room and never leaves her side. The power of obeah in saving Annie's life corrects the death of Ma Chess's own son, John, who relied only on Western medicine instead of obeah. Ma Chess vanishes just as mysteriously as she arrives once Annie gets better.
In the final chapter, Annie finally states her name and also announces that it is her last day in Antigua. At age seventeen, she chooses to move to England to become a nurse rather than stay with her mother and father in the only home she's ever known. She is now taller than both her father and mother. They all walk shoulder to shoulder down the main roads in town to the jetty.
During this walk, she reflects on her life up until that time as she passes all the familiar places—church, school, library—that defined her childhood and adolescence. Annie is no longer in love with Gwen; Gwen is now only an annoying former acquaintance to whom she feels obliged to say goodbye. Even though she hugs her parents, smiles, cries with her mother and feels sadness at the time of departure, Annie knows that "I shall never see this again" (8.17).
Annie idolizes her mother and safely resides within the cocoon of her family and home. She develops an obsession with death and is shocked to find out that children die.
Annie starts to menstruate, grow taller, and experiences rejection from her mother. She responds in kind by acting out, rejecting her mother and falling in (friend?) love with Gwen and the Red Girl.
Annie gets sick and Ma Chess heals her with obeah. Now disillusioned with all things Antigua, Annie leaves for England to study nursing.