Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" showed me that a writer can create a complete, vivid world in a very few deceptively simple words. Before I read her brilliant short story, I thought great literature had to last for days and be inpenetrable. But in only three pages, "Girl" demonstrates the awful, limited life to be enforced on an unnamed young girl at a very particular time and place.
We learn all we need to know despite the entire story being a series of instructions from the girl's mother: "this is how you sweep a house;" "this is how to make a bread pudding;" "this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you," and so on, with repeated warnings not to be "the slut you are so intent on becoming." The narrator obviously loves her daughter and wants to take care of her but also believes in the very limited, woman-hating rules of her island culture; being neither heroine nor villain makes her a much more vivid character. Her instructions march forward so pitilessly that every time I read "Girl," I empathize deeply with what the title character has to endure to obey all the rules.
The only two exceptions to the relentless commands are two responses from the daughter, which hold out a feeble hope that she might one day break out of her societally imposed cage and form her own life. In her first response, she protests her innocence of the charge that she sang a forbidden, allegedly sinful kind of music on Sunday, but her words are ignored as her mother gives a new, unrelated order. At the end, when her mother tells her how to squeeze bread before buying it, she asks, "But what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?" And her mother responds, "You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?" Any question she voices renders her more guilty of seeming like the slut she is allegedly so intent on becoming, and the girl will have to fight hard for her freedom. That she questions at such a young age makes her more interesting than the usual crushed victim stereotype would be.
All of the above might make "Girl" sound punishing and dour, but instead, it is simultaneously funny and horrifying, giving me a lot of mixed emotions as a reader, more potently and with more energy than many novels manage. It's a huge bolt of lightning in a tiny bottle.