“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Ellen Gilchrist / Edition: Reprint / Paperback / 368 Pages / Book is published 2001-10-31 by Louisiana State University Press „
Amanda McCamey is a handful. Born in the Mississippi River Delta on a plantation, her relatives fail to notice that she is taking rather too much interest in her cousin, Guy, and before long, she is pregnant at the age of fourteen. Sent away, she gives birth to a daughter who she is forced to give up for adoption. Amanda then conforms for a while, marrying a wealthy man in New Orleans, but once in her forties, she rebels again. Going back to school, she becomes a translator and poet and divorces her wealthy husband. Moving to Arkansas, she endeavours to concentrate on her translation work, but soon becomes involved with a much younger man. Will she ever find what she is looking for? And whatever happened to the child she bore in her teens?
Ellen Gilchrist is an author who is new to me. She writes about the area in which she grew up, America's South, and is probably best known for her short stories; this, however, is her first novel, published back in 1983. The Annunciation is very much a character-driven book; it describes Amanda's life and her attitude towards it in great detail. It is thought that Amanda's story is that of Ellen Gilchrist herself, although there is no apparent proof that this is the case.
The main problem with the book for me is that I didn't like Amanda. There is no doubt that she is a highly realistic character - the way that she is described means that she positively leaps off the page. Amanda is very feisty and very sure of herself in some ways, yet it is clear that she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She tries to address this by marrying money and repeatedly drinking herself into the ground, but is still unable to find her purpose in life. Even when she thinks she has found it in her translation work, she is soon restless again and struggling to understand what is happening in her relationship with a younger man.
In many ways, all this should have meant that I could identify with her. However, I just found her rather irritating. Her musings on life are scatty and disordered and left me wondering what she would do if anything really tragic happened to her. There was certainly too much navel-gazing going on and she didn't seem to consider how her actions might affect other people - it was all about her and her expectations. There was a brief respite when she becomes close friends with her black housekeeper - a woman she deeply respects despite the social divide between them, but unfortunately, Amanda moves on soon after and the housekeeper disappears from the story.
Amanda aside, the story is interesting, not because of what happens exactly, because it certainly isn't full of action. However, it does give a very thorough look at a lifestyle that is quite alien to me. I have never been to America, let alone the South, and I found the social aspects of Amanda's life fascinating - particularly the first part, set on her grandmother's plantation. Unfortunately, that was dealt with quite briefly in comparison to the rest of Amanda's life. Nevertheless, I finished the book feeling that I had had an insight into the lifestyle of someone who I would never usually have come across.
I've thought long and hard about whether there is a purpose to the book. In many respects, it shouldn't matter whether a book has a purpose or not, because that is always going to be individual to each reader. However, I do like to read a book feeling that I can identify with something or someone within it. In this case, I really struggled to find a point to the story. The issues that it deals with are growing up, finding a purpose in life and starting all over again when it is considered to be too late by many. However, I was left feeling rather flat, wondering why the author had chosen to write about Amanda at all. Quite possibly it is a story of the author herself, but why she should feel that would be of interest to the world at large, I don't really know.
There is a little twist in the tale at the end of the book, something that I didn't see coming and that did make me sit up in shock. Rather than make me feel that it made the book suddenly make sense, however, it strengthened my resolve that there wasn't an awful lot of point to the book in the first place. It is, I suppose, a sign that life can never be planned, that it doesn't start or end neatly, but I still felt that there was something missing, mainly because there were a couple of important sub-plots that just weren't finished off at all.
The writing is beautiful. Ellen Gilchrist, without a doubt, has a writing skill of which I am deeply envious. She doesn't over-write - there are no long, boring descriptions - but rather she manages to express herself in the minimum of words. Yet these words are always precise and very descriptive in themselves. At times, the work does seem a little pretentious - I particularly disliked the parts about Amanda's translation work and the effort that was put into explaining her views of the French poet she was working on. However, these parts are relatively short, so in all, it didn't affect my views of the book all that much.
This is one of those books that I finished, wondering if I was missing something. Perhaps there is some deep spiritual meaning underneath all the words and Amanda's actions and I am just not intelligent enough to see it. The fact remains though that I didn't like the main character, and, despite some stunning writing, I was left feeling a little flat. If you're interested in reading about women from the South of America and enjoy beautiful writing, then you will probably like this; otherwise I'm not sure it's worth going to the effort to get hold of a copy - it isn't readily available in the UK anyway. Three stars out of five.
The book is available from Amazon (limited copies) from £4.94. Published by Little, Brown and Company, it has 353 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0316313087