Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid

I went back and re-read an old favourite recently – Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and as I was reading it, I remembered a seminar at university where we discussed it.
My class (which was all female – as most of my seminar groups tended to be) were asked what we thought of the book – and after suffering that agonising ‘I’m not going to be the first one to speak in case what I say isn’t the same as what everyone else thinks’ silence that typified the first two and half years of my degree, I rolled my eyes and spoke up. I said that I loved the book, because I thought it was really accurate portrayal of how teenage girls interact with their mothers.
Cue a sharp intake of breath, no doubt from the girls who think that their mum is their best friend, share clothes and go shopping with them and have never exchanged a cross word – what I said was an aberration to them, because, to put it bluntly, Annie John really seems to hate her mother.
It’s fair to say that while I love my mum and have a huge amount of respect for her now, our relationship throughout my teenage years was a bit like a pitched battle – I was awkward, angry and for the most part, really unhappy, from the age of 11 to about 18 – I can’t even imagine how awful living with me must have been.
I read Annie John after I had left home and moved away from my family (as Annie herself does at the end of the book) and I could look back on my own teenage years as I read about Annie’s. I recognised how Jamaica Kincaid describes the way the relationship between mothers and daughters changes when you suddenly stop being a child and start having an identity of your own – one that could well disappoint your parents. In Annie I see the same conflict between wanting to please my Mum and realising that I couldn’t change who I was and feeling angry that she couldn’t accept my personality.
It’s hard to write about teenagers without it sounding ridiculous (just look at all the comments
this article about The Catcher in the Rye sparked – and all the people saying that they couldn’t stand the book because of all the self-pity and angst) and I think I love Annie John so much because it avoids that trap, and because I can read it, remember my teenage years and take them a bit seriously, rather than squirm in embarrassment.

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