The Dying of the Light

Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir of her brother’s death leads her, for once, beyond rage.

My Brother
By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 176 pages; $21

Jamaica Kincaid is great at describing rage. Her fictional heroines can name every indignity they’ve been subjected to since birth, and because they are usually bright young women from troubled families in poor island backwaters such as Antigua or Dominica, their list of injuries is long. They’ve seen corrupt governments, sadistic schoolmasters, domineering mothers who spoil their sons but train their daughters to be selfless clothes-washers, and feckless men whose only reason for living is to seduce women and then disappear. Sometimes, as in the case of the 19-year-old protagonist of Lucy, a Kincaid heroine gets so fed up that she moves to the United States (as Kincaid did, at 17)–but there she only finds more fuel for her anger in the pitying stares of unconsciously racist white liberals.

Rage is Kincaid’s strength. One senses it above all in her amazing control over words, which, while extremely satisfying on the level of literary technique, also comes across as a refusal to be vulnerable and a reply to anyone who would try to keep her down.

Still, rage is only one shade on the spectrum of human experience. Kincaid’s new memoir is more expansive than her fiction–and at times more moving–because in it, she begins to explore some of the others.

The story she has to tell is sadly simple: Her brother Devon Drew died of AIDS in 1996, at the age of 33. The event was far from unique, of course. Many thousands of young men have died a similarly frightening, needless death, and not a few memoirs have chronicled their last days. And anyway, Kincaid wasn’t even all that close to Drew. He was the youngest of three younger brothers, all of whom shared a father different from Kincaid’s, and although he was sharp and curious as a boy, he threw away his talents and made a fatal decision to glide through life on charm alone. After Kincaid moved away, he grew up to become an irresponsible pothead Rastafarian, a boastful lady-killer, a gardener who toyed with becoming a singer and gave himself the stage name “Sugar.” But one of the themes of MyBrother is the overpowering gravitational pull of families–even if yours is so sick and infuriating and doomed that you left the country to escape it. When Kincaid finds out that Drew is ill (the news comes from a family friend, since she and her mother are in the middle of a months-long quarrel and have stopped speaking), she flies to Antigua to visit him and to offer help.

Critics often praise nonfiction by saying that it reads like fiction, when all they really mean is that it is absorbing and well written. In this case, the comparison really does hold up. MyBrother reads a little like a lyrical mystery novel: It’s clear from the very first sentence that Drew is going to die, and what follows is Kincaid’s attempt to figure out what led to such a waste of a life. She picks through childhood memories for a foreshadowing of what was to come. There was, for instance, the ghastly incident shortly after Drew was born, when he was lying in the arms of their mother, who was asleep, and red ants crawled in through the window and nearly ate him alive. And she adds a plot to her unfolding understanding of what happened to Drew the adult. She plants clues–chance encounters with acquaintances of Drew’s whose significance she doesn’t grasp until a hundred pages later. As with Kincaid’s novels, what stands out is her obsessive cataloging of subtly different emotional states in clear, looping, musical prose. On a break from the bedside vigil, she returns to her family in Vermont and wonders how she actually feels about her brother: “Love always feels much better than not-love, and that is why everybody always talks about love and that is why everybody always wants to have love: because it feels much better, so much better.” With a scary honesty typical of one of her heroines, she decides that her feelings for him are intense but probably smaller than love, clouded by anger.

B ut this remains a piece of nonfiction, and it’s a handy reference point for anyone who wants to argue that the recent ascendance of the memoir hasn’t wiped out artful, ambitious writing. Far from it. Kincaid’s favorite fictional themes show up in My Brother, and they gain from the real-life urgency. There’s the messed-up sexuality of Antigua, the way girls are taught to be virgins while boys are encouraged to be careless and promiscuous; Kincaid’s heroines have suffered from this sick training, and here we watch it slowly kill her brother. And there is Kincaid’s mother. The figure of the mother–wronged by men but stronger than Atlas, selfish and prejudiced and quite possibly evil but once in a while capable of infinite love–has dominated nearly all Kincaid’s stories and novels. In My Brother we see the real McCoy and she is, if anything, more formidable than her various imaginary incarnations. (Click for Kincaid’s recollection of a childhood incident that remained buried in her memory until hanging around with her mother while Drew died suddenly shook it loose.)

MyBrother is a modest little book. And yet, although Kincaid never says this so grandly, you get the sense that Drew’s death somehow prompted her to look at life differently, from a less narrow point of view, perhaps, and that the discoveries this book relates might eventually spill over into her fiction. Kincaid’s stories so far have been about young women of color born into a world that absolutely fails to value them. Her heroines have been fierce and admirable, but their struggle to be acknowledged has necessarily entailed a degree of self-dramatization–even, you might say, of selfishness. The heroine of Lucy rejects the meek role that life tries to assign her, announcing, “I wanted to have a powerful odor and would not care if it gave offense.” How much rounder a note Kincaid strikes when she writes of Drew: “And I began to wonder what his life must be like for him, and to wonder what my own life would have been like if I had not been so cold and ruthless in regard to my own family, acting only in favor of myself when I was a young woman.” After all these years, she’s still writing about survival. But as of this book, it looks like she’s made it to the other side.