image: the bare back of a black woman with a purple skirt. Palm leaves in the background.

Running Towards Yourself

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I have never collected unopened letters from my family and kept them hidden in my clothing to remind myself I mustn’t read them. But I have been so angry I didn’t dare speak to anyone related to me.

I’ve never accepted a job as a live-in nanny for a very well-off, cosmopolitan couple. But I have dreamed and plotted of escape, accepting a new job and a new life surrounded by strangers in a strange land.

I was never made to memorize and recite Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”— an ode to the beauty of daffodils—to my entire school without ever having seen the flower. But I do know the distinct internal conflict of being really good at something you consider utterly useless.

It’s been quite some time since I was 19 years old. But I do recall the anguish of being in that in-between place, that ever-shifting boundary between childhood and adulthood.

My entire reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy goes this way: “Why does reading this now resonate so deeply with me? Oh, that’s why.” This is a quintessential story of transformation. I’m Lucy. We’re Lucy.

“Sometimes there is no escape, but often the effort of trying will do quite nicely for a while.”

Originally serialized in The New Yorker and published in 1990, this short novel follows one year in the life a 19-year-old woman who has just emigrated from the West Indies to become a live-in au pair for Lewis and Mariah (the aforementioned couple) and their four children. It’s clear early on that Lucy has some animosity toward her family, specifically toward her mother, but its cause isn’t revealed until much later — a carefully planted seed Kincaid allows to take root in readers’ minds as we follow Lucy on her journey toward self-discovery. “What happened during her childhood? What tragedy could have befallen this girl to make her reject all she knows in one blind leap?”

My entire reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy goes this way: “Why does reading this now resonate so deeply with me? Oh, that’s why.” This is a quintessential story of transformation. I’m Lucy. We’re Lucy.

At first glance, it appears Lucy shares far too much with her creator to be considered separately. Kincaid was born May 1949 in the West Indies; Kincaid’s mother was much younger than her father. Kincaid’s relationship with her own mother soured after the arrival of her three brothers. Kincaid discovered a new love for photography shortly after her arrival in the U.S. Kincaid worked as an au pair before discovering what it was she wanted to do. All these things are true of Lucy as well. Kincaid even goes so far as to give the protagonist one of her family names as a surname: Potter.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as an autobiographical sketch, as Kincaid mining the details of her life to excavate demons, but so what if that’s exactly what this is? That’s what artists do.

There is a very loose bit of plot to the book, but the “story” here isn’t the point. Events unfold that shift the perspectives of both Lucy and her employer—as they must, as we knew they would. But really these are vignettes that occur in the span of a year. For the most part, they are presented chronologically. There is conspicuously no identifiable time period, except for the passage of the seasons, and no real sense of location: Lucy is in a large city with a subway, probably New York; she spends the summer near the Great Lakes. Until the final pages—when we learn Lucy’s birthdate, making the year most likely 1969—there is no indication of when this is all happening. This novel could have been set at almost any time, with very few changes.

I envy Lucy her vivid dreams, her philosophical certainties. Infinite possibility and immeasurable wisdom both seem accessible to her in this one fraught year. The year she came to America. The year she became friends with Peggy. The year she trained to become a nurse. The year she worked for Mariah. The year she loved Miriam (Mariah and Lewis’ youngest child, and the only person in the novel Lucy is willing to admit to loving unabashedly and unconditionally).

This novel could have been set at almost any time, with very few changes.

Does Lucy see her mother in Mariah? Undoubtedly. She eventually admits to doing so. Does she see a version of herself in little Miriam? Of course. Her care of the child is a chance to give herself the love, the attention, that was drained from her childhood. Both Lucys, the novel and the heroine, are a mass of contradictions.

Her lack of devotion to the men she sleeps with, the ambiguous nature of her close friendship with Peggy, her shedding the yoke of religion while retaining many of its lessons and art: these all speak to a person who has decided to write the ultimate creation story—her own.

Lucy isn’t a story about one woman’s difficult adjustment as an immigrant of color. There is very little attention paid to race specifically, though Lucy is undoubtedly aware of it. She mentions the obvious difference between the passengers of a train and the people working on that train, taking note of the fact that she looks more like the latter, yet is the former. She mentions the texture of her hair being foreign to her new suitor. But she doesn’t see race as something to perform or explain. Nor is this even really a story about being a feminist, though I’d say Lucy is one. It would no more occur to her to tell a story centered on those parts of her identity than it would to make up a story about what it’s like to have ten fingers and ten toes, or what it’s like to walk by placing one foot in front of the other. She simply is.

I can only imagine this was conscious on Kincaid’s part; she has drawn an archetype of a character. Immigrant women of color with complicated mother issues are not the only ones who strike out for unfamiliar American soil on which to build a new life. The inevitable destruction that results when you identify your goals and create the space necessary to fulfill them, also creating a new you in the process, is a universal story. Reinvention is the essence of what has come to be known as the American dream.

It’s interesting to me how often Lucy is described as an angry novel narrated by an angry person. I don’t see it that way. I love how well Lucy knows herself. Granted, she’s got some grudges, but she’s growing out of the performative, nonchalant cruelty of youth. She’s self-aware enough to know that her bitterness hasn’t curdled to cynicism quite yet.

This makes the novel’s final moment all the more devastating. She needs to love and be loved so desperately. She will not, cannot, allow it.

Andrea Battleground

Review by

Andrea Battleground is an associate editor for television and film at BuzzFeed and the former books editor for The A.V. Club. But more importantly, she's a humanoid who feels things and sometimes writes about them. She tweets at @imabattleground.

Helene Brox

Illustration by

Helene Brox works as a freelancer based in Oslo, Norway. Her focus is mainly on illustration, but also do hand drawn lettering and design work. She enjoys making book covers, posters, and have made illustrations and portraits for magazines, newspapers, books, an app, and television. She has a thing with drawing hands, and really likes putting the "art" in "arthritis." View more work at helenebrox.com.

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