November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

by Jamaica Kincaid

For a novel of relative brevity and plain language, this work by the author of Annie John is astonishingly astute and deeply affecting.

Lucy was named, by her much maligned mother, for the devil, Lucifer, because she was “a botheration from the moment [she] was conceived.” She is a young West Indian woman employed as an au pair by a mid-western American couple. Older, richer and white, her employers, Lewis and Mariah, seem at first to have a perfect life; only the cynical and world-weary Lucy is not surprised to see it unravel. “I wanted to say this to her: ‘Your situation is an everyday thing…’ Everybody knew that men have no morals, that they do not know how to behave…to treat other people. It was why men like laws so much; it was why they had to invent such things—they need a guide.”

For all her supposed backwardness and youth (she’s just 20), Lucy is a keen observer of human nature’s contradictions and perversity. “Almost everything I did now was something I had never done before.” Lucy thinks, “so the new was no longer thrilling to me unless it reminded me of the past.” “Because Peggy and I were now not getting along.” she muses about a friend, “we naturally started to talk about finding an apartment in which we would live together.”

But it does this book a disservice to say it is merely about odd ways people behave. It is also a story about a young woman’s flight from and eventual acceptance of her own family, a tale of sexual awakening and a subtle examination of the meaning of class and race. Like a child’s painting, this seemingly simple novel embodies a whole complex world. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $185.95)

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