Picks and Pans Review: The Autobiography of My Mother

updated 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jamaica Kincaid

Xuela Claudette Richardson, the narrator of Kincaid's new novel, is a fearless woman of 70 years whose strong, sure, feminist voice pulls us into the tale of her tumultuous life on the West Indian island of Dominica. Abandoned by her mother (who dies at her birth), Xuela feels forever alone, confronting her fate with cold deliberateness. She is consumed by her ancestry and the colonial history that has scarred her country. Her father, a red-haired Scottish-African, abuses his position as a government official to enrich himself. Her mother, a Carib, was born on Dominica, which had been overrun by European conquerors.

Raised by a cruel stepmother, among jealous siblings, Xuela grows up locked in bitterness. Seducing other women's men, refusing to bear children, she cares nothing for emotional life. "Romance is the refuge of the defeated," she says. "I would not allow the passage of time or the full weight of desire to make a pawn out of me." And unlike her country and her people, Xuela manages to achieve a fierce self-reliance built from unrelenting loss.

The Autobiography of My Mother reads throughout like a tale of biblical solemnity. Sharp-edged yet moving, it is a disturbing look back into a shattered past through the eyes of a mystical and unrepentant narrator. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $20)

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