Picks and Pans Review: A Small Place

updated 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Jamaica Kincaid

With this nonfiction debut, Kincaid, known as an author of elegant short stories and the 1985 novel Annie John, brings a new turbulence to her writing. The lyrical, emotional style of her fiction seems hardened here into a ceaseless taunt. The setting is again her native Antigua, a West Indian island only nine miles wide and 12 miles long. The 79-page book is divided into four essays that span the centuries from the island's slave and colonial heritage (Antigua was a British colony until 1981) to the author's own take on its current political corruptions. Kincaid, who now lives in Vermont, intermixes memoir and satire without giving her language any real urgency. Her style, usually beguiling and innocent, takes on a harshly mocking tone, giving her prose the confusing sting of a honey-pepper sauce. For example, in the brief section about the Antigua of her childhood, she writes, "The English hate each other and they hate England, and the reason they are so miserable now is that they have no place else to go and nobody else to feel better than." Antiguans don't fare well either: "I look at these people, and I cannot tell whether I was brought up by, and so came from, children, eternal innocents, or artists who have not yet found eminence in a world too stupid to understand, or lunatics who have made their own lunatic asylum, or an exquisite combination of all three." Much of this book is beset by a similar rampant anger. Addressing a tourist who sits down to savory Caribbean food, she comments, "It's better that you don't know that most of what you are eating came off a plane from Miami. And before...who knows where it came from? A good guess is that it came from a place like Antigua first, where it was grown dirt-cheap, went to Miami, and came back." The obvious comparison is to VS. Naipaul's books—fiction and nonfiction—about the ramifications of colonialism. But where Naipaul is humane and appreciative of the dark corners of the human condition, Kincaid seems only vituperative and intemperate. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $13.95)

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