I picked up Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy because I might possibly teach it in a course I’m planning on travel and cross-cultural encounters. The main character, Lucy, a teenager from the West Indies, moves to the United States to work as an au pair, so the book will fit my theme nicely. It’s a first person narrative, and is full of Lucy’s observations about American culture and her attempts to make sense of its strangeness. It’s interesting seeing America through her eyes, and her observations are sharp, critical ones. Things that seem obvious and natural to the American family (and to me) are strange to her:
One morning in early March, Mariah said to me, “You have never seen spring, have you?” And she did not have to await an answer, for she already knew. She said the word “spring” as if spring were a close friend, a friend who had dared to go away for a long time and soon would reappear for their passionate reunion. She said, “Have you ever seen daffodils pushing their way up out of the ground? And when they’re in bloom and all massed together, a breeze comes along and makes them do a curtsy to the lawn stretching out in front of them. Have you ever seen that? When I see that, I feel so glad to be alive.” And I thought, So Mariah is made to feel alive by some flowers bending in the breeze. How does a person get to be that way?
So much about this exchange is typical — Lucy’s bewilderment at what Mariah and her family think and feel and Mariah’s insensitivity. If she knows Lucy hasn’t experienced spring, why does she keep asking if she’s seen it?
The daffodils keep returning: Lucy tells Mariah a story about reciting a poem on daffodils as a young child and receiving great praise for her elocution. She never names what the poem is, but it’s surely William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” She feels so conflicted about all the praise she receives that she vows to forget every word of the poem, and then she dreams that the flowers are chasing her until she collapses from exhaustion and they pile on top of her. She tells the story to Mariah, who doesn’t quite know how to respond.
This is her experience in a nutshell — she is made to confront her racial difference and her origins in a colonized country again and again. She bristles with anger as people talk about their wonderful vacations in “the islands” and watches people get uncomfortable as they don’t know how to respond to some of the stories she tells — some of them told in an attempt to make people uncomfortable, some of them not.
This is also a novel about growing up. Lucy has to figure out her relationship with the family she works for, the extent to which Mariah is a substitute mother or a friend and the amount of freedom she will be allowed. She also explores her sexuality, figuring out what she wants and doesn’t want from the men she meets. Her story is an intense one because she is confronted with so much that’s new, so much that she has to absorb. Not only does she struggle to fit in with her American family, but she has to figure out what to say to her family back home, from whom she begins to feel estranged. She has experienced so much that’s hard to put into words.
This is a short, powerful novel, written in a simple, direct way that captures the intensity of Lucy’s experience. Her voice is one that can be uncomfortable to listen to, but is remarkably compelling.