Kincaid’s stories blend truth and fiction in the Caribbean Islands

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A report by Kerry Wholey for the Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.

As the leaves have all fallen from the deciduous trees here in New England, and the stalky trunks and branches are all that remain, save for the evergreens of course, the whisper of the wind through palm trees in exotic, tropical locations begins to play in the mind.  There is something about knowing it is snowing at home and being in the intermittent shade and sun of a palm tree on some island that calls our wanderlust with a serene yet ravaging howl.

Island life is different somehow than so-called mainland living.  It is true that if we back far enough away from even the largest continental landmass, it is in fact an island, as well.  With that said, perhaps we are considering smaller island living.  Humorously enough though, Manhattan is an island in New York City, and not a very large one at that.  It would seem you the reader will have to conjure your own idea of what island living is, and how it may or may not be different!  We like palm trees to live there, if possible.

Today’s book is written by a lovely Antiguan native named Jamaica Kincaid.  It is a collection of stories written about the author’s past, and what she received in her island living.  At the Bottom of the River is Kincaid’s earliest collection in book form.  It was first printed in 1983.  She had written as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine for about seven years prior to this publication.  She has several novels, many other collections, as well.

Jamaica Kincaid writes with a real passion, and her stories really push the reader into deep and sometimes uncomfortable places emotionally.  Her stories, as she notes “are all true, and all not true.  They would not be good evidence in courts of law.”  That is a pretty neat way to say she has been through some things, and has shared honestly in her writing.

Her themes revolve around domineering maternal figures, colonial challenges in the Caribbean Islands, Antigua particularly, and a beautiful blend of physical and divine themes.  She is more interested in telling the story, with all the detail she can muster, using many wonderful writing techniques, than she is in a plot that is too thick or heavy.  It is easy enough to follow along, if you try to think like an islander (remember our opening consideration.)

One thing we certainly note in this collection of ten short stories is the way an islander will truly integrate all of the details of life into their story.  The plants and animals are every much as important as the people, the weather, the neighborhood stories and God.  This has been noted by this writer in local people from other tropical islands also.  Kincaid captures the reader and brings them into the mind and heart of her stories.  It is a nice place to find ourselves.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Antigua, please do so with haste.  It is a very lovely and gentle place.  Having walked directly through what was considered the ghetto of St. John, the main city in Antigua, noted as such by the cab driver we later drove back to our domicile with, the people could not have been nicer.  The elderly woman at the top of the road accepted our waves and salutations with the biggest grin, and all down the lane children came to the fences of the school and porches of the small shacks to wave and say hello to us.  They were lovely, one-hundred percent.  Of course, we went in with love and no fear and made effort to be kind.  This always helps.

If you have a hankering for some island life story time reading, then At the Bottom of the River is right up your alley.  If you are captivated by Jamaica Kincaid’s writing style, there is much more material.  She is a resident of Vermont in the summers, teaches at Harvard University, and is a very interesting human, as we all are, to get to know a bit more about.  You might just increase your love for palm trees in the process.

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