Book Review: Off the Bookshelf

Jamaica Kincaid

Off the Bookshelf

At the Bottom of the River

by Jamaica Kincaid

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 82 pp., $10 (paper)

Originally released in 1983, At the Bottom of the River is a lyrical collection of some of Jamaica Kincaid's most provocative writing. It begins innocently enough with one of Kincaid's most impacting writings, Girl. Tattooed in my memory since college, Girl is one of the most severe but accurate depictions of the volatile intensity between mother and daughter. Fueled by a combination of love, fear, and partial loathing, a mother doles out a mantra of life lessons with equal parts concern and venom: "When buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it, because that way it won't hold up well after a wash. ... Always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming." The essays that follow are sinewy with sexual, violent, and spiritual themes. Like a journal, At the Bottom of the River matures in content as it proceeds. Kincaid's prose-poetry initially appears whimsical (she describes some pebbles as "not pebbly enough") and that's the mystique of her writing, how it almost capriciously masks cerebral contemplations on living, dying, and the struggle in-between.

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