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The Boston Phoenix Jamaica Kincaid

"My Brother"

By Elizabeth Manus

MY BROTHER: by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 198 pages, $19.

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Jamaica Kincaid's memoir My Brother may be a slim volume, but it is not a quick read. Rather, it is a difficult one. Though it deals with a sibling's death from AIDS, readers of the harrowing Autobiography of My Mother will know not to expect a sister's heartfelt story. It is a study in detachment, in bitterness, and in survival.

The subject at hand is Devon, the youngest of Kincaid's three brothers, who died of AIDS last year at the age of 33. She knew him only in his first and last three years, a bookend relationship, but it is his life -- and, by extension, his death -- that illuminates hers with blinding force, proving the linchpin that holds together "the what really happened, the what might have really happened, and how it led to what was actually happening."

The subject behind the subject at hand is Kincaid's mother, who, for 13-year-old Kincaid, changed utterly after Devon's birth. "She became bitter, sharp; she and I quarreled all the time. . . . Her features collapsed, she was beautiful in the face before . . . but that wasn't true anymore after my brother was born." Kincaid explains that her mother is exemplary "when we are weak and helpless and need her. . . . It is when her children are trying to be grown-up people -- adults -- that her mechanism for loving them falls apart." Thus baby Devon and HIV-positive Devon benefit from their mother's love; his sister, as teenage bookworm and adult aspiring writer, fares miserably. When he is three years old, Kincaid (as readers may already know) leaves home for America, where she will forge a new identity with a new name, and where she will obsess about her mother but not speak to her for 20 years.

The memoir crisscrosses time and space from Kincaid's childhood on Antigua to her present-day life in Vermont -- as mother, wife, writer -- and back again to the hospital ward where her brother lies awaiting a lonely death, for his friends have abandoned him and the other patients, as well as some of the hospital staff, practically shun AIDS patients. With sometimes striking detachment Kincaid reports on the various stages of his decline, from when she first sees him and his deep red lips "holding in place the dangerous fluid that was his blood" to his condition at the morgue -- "lying in a plastic bag of good quality." And the fact that she refers to him only as "my brother" until quite far into the book both distances her from the pain that is her family and reiterates an inescapable truth about who she is: a sister, a daughter. She is sorry and sad about her brother's death; she had also wished for it so she could be released her from familial obligations. She admits she neither liked nor loved him. The matter-of-factness with which she relates these sentiments flies in the face of decorum as we know it.

Clearly, hers is not the standard-issue treatment of death; Kincaid conveys it as more a change than a loss. "I shall never forget him," she writes of her youngest brother, "because his life is the one I did not have, the life that, for reasons I hope shall never be too clear to me, I avoided or escaped." She is not speaking of his involvement with a murder, the time he spent in jail, his affinity for marijuana and cocaine, or his promiscuity with women. Rather, she is referring to the fact that he has no job, no home of his own, and is dependent on their mother. "If only he could have seen his way to simply moving away from her to another planet, though perhaps even that might not have been far enough away."

Certainly that was what saved Kincaid: "I could not have become a writer while living among the people I knew best, I could not have become myself," she writes. It happens that Devon played a key role in Kincaid's metamorphosis. One day when their mother was out, the 15-year-old Kincaid became so absorbed in a book that she neglected to change her brother's diaper. This enraged their mother, who then committed an unspeakable act: she doused all her daughter's books with kerosene and set them on fire. It is the name of a dying man on Devon's ward that brings the incident back in vivid detail.

Kincaid's incantatory style is in full force here, the prose spare but thick, as she lobs small grenades of scorn, hatred, disdain toward her abusive mother and brilliant but careless brother. One can't help admiring her fortitude and her self-possession, both as a woman and as a writer. But one wishes for a greater show of mercy or forgiveness, a modicum of empathy -- which she finally delivers when she learns new information about her brother after his death. Discovering what he has never been able to express reveals to her that he, too, was unable to become himself in Antigua, and she sees that "in his life there had been no flowering."

By contrast, Kincaid's memoir makes manifest the amplitude of her own flowering. Ultimately, this is a story about Kincaid's struggle to save herself, and a study of her own development and survival as a writer. "Why is it so new, why is this worn-out thing, death, someone dying, so new, so new?" she wonders toward the book's end. In the case of My Brother, its newness is born of her commanding prose style. Not easily taken in, her words are not easily forgotten. They sear the mind.

Elizabeth Manus is the editor of PLS.

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