At the Bottom of the River
At the Bottom of the River is a marvelous collection of ten tales. With lyrical grace, Jamaica Kincaid takes us on a trip through childhood in the Caribbean. This book vibrates with the physical presence of the sun, the sand, the sea, and the mountains of that region.
The stories are about mothers, fathers, and the love with which they bind their children. The tales speak of the differences between men and women and the magic and mystery that is nature itself.
Kincaid’s stories are streams of consciousness with which she draws the audience into a world of movement and color. Her first story Girl is an amusing very short tale of a mother’s instructions to her daughter on doing simple tasks. There are household tasks: how and when to wash clothes, sweep the house, how to set the table for a family dinner, and how to set the table for dinner with an important guest.
There are also social tasks: the type of smiles you give to people you like, the type of smiles you give to people you like completely, the type of smiles you give to people you don’t like, how to walk and dress like a lady, and how to talk to men. Interspersed with these instructions are the mother’s repeated warnings to the daughter not to become “the slut you are so bent on becoming.”
My Mother is a fantastical short story composed of several vignettes. Each vignette contains a bizarre mother and daughter tale always narrated by the daughter and always told with a mixture of fear, reverence, and love .
In one vignette the mother suffocates her angry but repentant child only to restore her to life. After this they are careful to always speak lovingly to each other. In another sketch, mother and daughter change from human to reptilian aquatic creatures, the daughter slithering obediently behind her mother. In several of the these sketches the daughter tries to surpass her mother but is never able to do so. In the last two we see why. “…..we merge and separate, merge and separate; soon we shall enter the final stage of our evolution.” They are becoming the same person.
The final story At the Bottom of the River is a beautiful tale of love and anguish. It is about the beauty and power of nature, the love of a child for her mother, and the ultimate awareness of self.
The author asks, “Is life, then, a violent burst of light, like flint struck sharply in the dark?” If this is so, she must try to exist from one day to another. She then tells us how much she was loved as a child, how much she loved herself, and how much her mother loved her.
But we can’t live protected by our mothers forever. We must grow up and experience life and all the beauty and sorrow it brings.
I have read this book several times and expect to do so again. For me, it is a tour of home, and a reminder of what it meant to be a girl growing up in the Caribbean. For others, it will be an adventure, a glimpse of another life rich in the rhythm and music of a different voice and culture.
Judith Woolcock Colombo: Author of, The Fablesinger & Night Crimes