A Small Place – Plot Overview

A Small Place is divided into four loosely structured, untitled
sections. The first section begins with Kincaid’s narration of the reader’s
experiences and thoughts as a hypothetical tourist in Antigua. The reader, through
Kincaid’s description, witnesses the great natural beauty of the island, while being
sheltered from the harsher realities of the lives of those who must live there.
Kincaid weaves into her narrative the sort of information that only an “insider”
would know, such as the reason why the majority of the automobiles on the island are
poorly running, expensive Japanese cars. Included in her guided tour are brief views
of the mansions on the island, mostly gained through corruption or outright
criminality. She also mentions the now-dilapidated library, still awaiting repairs
after an earthquake ten years earlier. The tour continues at the hotel, and Kincaid
concludes the section with a discussion of her view of the moral ugliness of being a
tourist.
The second section deals with Kincaid’s memories of the “old” Antigua, the
colonial possession of Great Britain. Kincaid recalls the casual racism of the
times, and the subservience of Antigua to England and, especially, to English
culture. She delves briefly into the history of Barclay’s Bank and discusses the
Mill Reef Club, an elite, all-white enclave built by wealthy foreigners. She
describes and deplores the great hoopla made over the visit of Princess Margaret to
the island when Kincaid was a child. Much of the section is concerned with the
distortions that colonialism has created in the minds of the Antiguans; Antiguans do
not tend to recognize racism as such, says Kincaid, and the bad behavior of
individual English people never seems to affect the general reverence for English
culture. For Kincaid, the problem is compounded by the fact that the people of
Antigua can express themselves only in the language of those who enslaved and
oppressed them. She then discusses the connection she sees between the colonial past
of the island and its impoverished, corrupt present.
The third section, the longest, deals with Antigua’s present and begins with
Kincaid asking herself the disturbing question of whether, considering the state of
the island today, things weren’t, in fact, better in the old days. As an example,
she takes the state of the library, awaiting repairs after all these years and
forced to reside in “temporary” quarters above a dry goods store. Kincaid has fond,
if ambivalent, feelings toward the old library, which was a haven of beauty and an
escape into reading for her as a child. She recalls the imperious ways of the head
librarian (who suspected Kincaid, rightly, of stealing books), who is now sadly
reduced to campaigning, mostly unsuccessfully, for funds to build a new library,
while the collection decomposes in cardboard boxes. The rich members of the Mill
Reef Club have the funds to help, but will do so only if the old library is
rebuilt—a demand that Kincaid sees as having more to do with nostalgia for the
colonial regime than with a true desire to help. Kincaid mentions the ironies
involved in Antigua having a Minister of Culture without having a culture to
administer. She also mentions her politically active mother’s run-in with the
current Minister of Culture, who has allowed the library to languish. Education has
clearly suffered on Antigua in the years since independence, and Kincaid ruefully
notes the poor speech habits of the younger Antiguans.
Kincaid discusses the way Antiguans experience the passage of time, and
connects this to their oddly detached view of the corruption of their government.
She then goes into a litany of the many abuses of power on the island, including
misappropriation of funds, kickbacks, drug smuggling, and even political
violence—all of which are known by the average Antiguan. Kincaid then discusses the
political history of Antigua since independence, showing how power has rested in the
same hands for most of the period, with one brief, unimpressive exception. Kincaid
sees corruption as an ingrained element of political life on the island, so much so
that government officials who do not steal are held in contempt as fools rather than
admired for their honesty. She tells of the fears that many Antiguans have for the
future and hints that open dictatorship or political upheaval may lie ahead.
The fourth, and final, section is a sort of coda to the piece, starting with
an evocation of the intense physical beauty of the island. She describes the beauty
as so extreme as to appear “unreal,” almost like an illustration or a stage-set.
Kincaid says that the beauty of their surroundings is a mixed blessing to the
Antiguans, who are trapped in an unchanging setting in which their poverty is part
of the scenery. The slaves who were brought to Antigua by force were victims, and
therefore noble—but their descendants, today’s Antiguans, are simple human beings,
with all the problems and contradictions of human beings anywhere.