My Brother: A Memoir
Book Review, October 1997

Like the characters, circumstances, and emotions in this, her sixth book, Jamaica Kincaid herself is at once real and a product of her own invention. Born Elaine Potter Richardson to a desperately poor family in Antigua, at age 17 she was sent to the United States in hopes she’d be able to find work and send some money home. After working, briefly, as an au pair in Manhattan, Elaine Richardson became Jamaica Kincaid, and Jamaica Kincaid became a staff writer for The New Yorker– whose legendary former editor, William Shawn, became her mentor, and later, her father-in-law.

My Brother tells the story of the death from AIDS of Devon Drew, Kincaid’s much-younger brother. Summoned back to the island and the family from which she had long ago exiled herself, when she lands at her dying brother’s bedside Kincaid lands in the marshland of her deepest struggle: between her desire to forgive the suffering caused by her mother’s narcissism and her brother’s self-destructiveness, on the one hand; and her need to distance herself from her pain and its perpetrators on the other.

Interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood and scenes from her current life as wife and mother, My Brother describes Kincaid’s efforts to be a compassionate caregiver to her brother–for whom she feels both love and contempt–under the scrutiny of her mother, who she still blames for a childhood of abuse and neglect.

Of her mother Kincaid writes,

"My mother loves her children...in her way!...It is her way. It never has occurred to her that her way of loving us might ot be the best thing for us. It has never occurred to her that her way of loving us might have served her better than it served us."

And of her brother: "He was careless; I canot imagine him taking the time to buy or use a condom. This is a quick judgment, because I don’t know my brothers very well, but I am pretty sure that a condom would not be something he would have troubled himself to use...A few years ago...I told him to protect himself from the HIV virus and he said to me then that he would never get a stupid thing like that ("Me no get dat chupidness, man").

As Kincaid acknowledges, she is quick to pass judgement. The harshness of these judgments, and the lack of empathy Kincaid manifests for others, makes it hard to empathize with her. And that’s a shame, because despite Kincaid’s self-absorbed criticisms of others’ self-absorption, there is much brilliant writing and thinking in the pages of My Brother. Ironically, some of the book’s most engaging passages are those in which Kincaid’s reproachful ruminations about her relationships with her mother and her brother lead to startling, lyrical insights about her relationships with her children.

"When (her son) looks at me he does not see a person, he sees the sky blotted out, the horizon, too...he sees his needs fulfilled, his needs unfilled, he sees satisfaction and disappointments, I am for him a source of pleasure and pain, he shall wish me dead many times, and when I finally do die, a large emptiness that can never be filled up will be with him for the rest of his own life..."

Along with her insights about relationships, Kincaid also unearths some painful realities about AIDS–especially the differences between the social and medical treatments available in America versus what’s available in on the Caribbean island where her brother is lying in a primitive, under equipped hospital.

"The reason my brother was dying of AIDS at the time I saw him is that in Antigua if you are diagnosed with the HIV virus you are considered to be dying; the drugs used for slowing the progress of the virus are not available there...it is felt...that since there is no cure for AIDS it is useless to spend money on a medicine that will only slow the progress of the disease...even if a doctor had wanted to write a prescription for AZT...there was no AZT on the island, it was too expensive to be stocked."

My Brother is not, in fact, about Kincaid’s brother. It’s about life and death. It’s about how economic and emotional poverty corrode the body and the soul. It’s about the sticky tentacles that tie brothers to sisters, mothers to daughters, adults to their childhoods, people to where they come from–no matter how far they stray; no matter how desperately they try to escape.

Most of all, My Brother is about Jamaica Kincaid. Unshrouded, here, by the thin veil of fiction she’s draped around her disclosures in the past, Kincaid emerges naked–with her bold perceptions, and unappealing self-righteousness in evidence.