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Life Becomes Art

LUCY, By Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux. 164 pp., $16.95 AT first, Lucy Josephine Potter, the protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid's second novel, seems like another victim of global inequities. Transplanted from her West Indian home, the 19-year-old arrives in a large East Coast city, presumably New York, to work as an au pair for a well-to-do family. She has never ridden in an elevator or lived in a house that has had a refrigerator. On her first night in the maid's room she falls into a leaden sleep, a defense against any new sights or stimuli. Insensitive to the connotations, her host family soon begins to call her their ``poor visitor.'' To them, she appears to be ``just passing through,'' unable to embrace their interests or the pace of their lives.

But Lucy is neither a sad statistic nor a vacant-eyed hostage to circumstances. The opening paragraph of this first-person novel testifies to the vigor of her mind and to the fact that her psychic bruises and impetuous anger have little to do with the immediate experience of cultural clash. On the contrary, she writes that the buildings, parks, streets, and bridges of her new locale once ``were lifeboats to my drowning soul, for I would imagine myself entering and leaving them, and just that ... would see me through a bad feeling I did not have a name for.''

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How the physical landscape of the developed countries came to signify both solace and intellectual accomplishment to the young West Indian, and how she comes to terms with the inevitable disenchantment, is the substance of Kincaid's simple, yet spellbinding story. In prose that moves as gracefully as sea grass in a tidal pool, Lucy's consciousness fluently undulates between her present and her past. In the course of a year, the gleam of both the storybook island of her birth, and the storybook family with whom she now resides will darken. Such is the cost of being able to see more clearly, and to partially resolve what lies beneath the surface.

In a moment of twinned pain and liberation, Lucy comes to terms with having been named for Lucifer. Her mother confesses to having dubbed her Lucy, because she was ``a botheration'' from the time she was conceived. Relatedly, she will give voice to an abiding resentment of her family's confident aspirations for their male children, from which she was alienated both by gender and by temperament.

Similarly, the snug and provident world of Mariah, the mother of the four little girls in Lucy's charge (and not, coincidentally, a delicious concoction of bourgeois liberal platitudes) must confront the reality that her husband is having an affair with her closest friend. By going back to the past, either physically, as Mariah does by spending the summer at her ancestral home near one of the Great Lakes, or in the imagination, as Lucy so frequently does, each of these women forges a new compact with the past, one freer (but not free) of its inhibiting burdens.

Like the schoolmate of her youth, whom island lore claimed was possessed, Lucy has ``had to cross the sea where the Devil couldn't follow her'' in order to make a fresh start. The novel ends at the beginning of her new life and at the beginning of the journal that will become the novel. Thus the finale become the fountainhead and life becomes art.

For many readers of this story, recently published in The New Yorker, the magazine for which Jamaica Kincaid has written, art and life are too cozily connected in ``Lucy.'' Lucy Josephine Potter has been mistaken for Elaine Potter Richardson, the name and the life Jamaica Kincaid put behind her as she became a writer. Both women are from the West Indies; both worked as au pairs for well-to-do families in large East Coast cities; both take up photography for a while, and both eventually become writers.

There is little doubt that Kincaid has used the early incidents of her experience in the United States as the narrative framework around which to fabricate her second novel, just as she centered her 1985 novel, ``Annie John,'' on her West Indian childhood. But ``Lucy'' can no more be discounted as autobiographical transcription than ``Moby Dick'' can be reduced to a fish story.

In a second reading, which this outstandingly well-crafted tale deserves, one can move beyond the details of plot to a view of the novel's subtle, yet strong structure. It is that structure, packed with fresh metaphor, that transforms the elements of life into art.

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In a bold appropriation, Jamaica Kincaid has adapted the double theme of falling from grace and the possibility of repentance from the Book of Genesis and from John Milton's ``Paradise Lost,'' a poem both Lucy and Elaine Potter Richardson were forced to memorize. Toward the end of the novel, Lucy admits that ``the stories of the fallen were well known to me, but I had not known that my own situation could even distantly be related to them.''

The great motifs of Western literature, like goodness and evil, innocence and experience, resonate in Kincaid's novel in a completely updated and unselfconscious way. In other hands, this story of a West Indian au pair would just be sociology. In Kincaid's recasting, it is both art and argument. ``Lucy'' should be required reading for those who find the so-called canon of works by Dead White European Males (the DWEMs, in current parlance) ill-adapted to the intellectual needs of multicultural America. The following is an excerpt from `Lucy' A New Beginning

IT WAS JANUARY AGAIN; the world was thin and pale and cold again; I was making a new beginning again.

I had been a girl of whom certain things were expected, none of them too bad: a career as a nurse, for example; a sense of duty to my parents; obedience to the law and worship of convention. But in one year of being away from home, that girl had gone out of existence.

The person I had become I did not know very well. Oh, on the outside everything was familiar. My hair was the same, though now I wore it cut close to my head, and this made my face seem almost perfectly round, and so for the first time ever I entertained the idea that I might actually be beautiful.

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