Magical Words

At the Bottom of the River By Jamaica Kincaid Aventura: 82 pp; $5.95

THE CROWNING VIRTUE of Jamaica Kincaid's new collection, At The Bottom of the River is the quality of the narrative voice. Powerful and richly expressive, it resonates throughout these ten stories with an inimitable rhythm, a rhythm less audible than visual, or better yet, palpable--the rhythm of objects falling through air. There is motion, there is a explosion.

Kincaid's voice eludes description or even comparison. In these ten brief pieces-movements in the literal sense of the word-the rhythm and texture of the language displace the reality of meaning:

In the night, way into the middle of the night, when the night, isn't divided like a sweet drink into little sips, when there is no just before midnight, midnight or just after midnight, when the night is round in some places, flat in some places and in some places like a deep hole, blue at the edge, black inside, the night soil men come.

Perhaps the motion is less of falling than of unfolding; the action is a controlled and graceful spreading of the hands. It is this gesture of disclosure that renders so irrelevant the particulars of time and place. To call this "Caribbean fiction" is only a gross restriction, an amputation and disfigurement of what is central: the mythical contours of the landscape, the pretences who inhabit it in the sublimated forms of colors, shapes, and sounds. Here it is a displacement by evaluation: "They come and go, walking on the damp ground in straw shoes. Their feet in the straw shoes make a scratchy sound. They say nothing."

If there is displacement of the meaning, there is, equally significant, placement of the word-orientations that startle, disturb, and ultimately succeed. Especially in the ritual and unbroken naming of objects, one sees the interstices between the words, the region of resolution.

Expanston and accumulation also characterize the temporal dimension of these stories that are anchored in a recollected, sublimated childhood, a childhood of intense and unsentimental dreaming, of intense and unsentimental sensation. The present tense in which the stories are talented and heard is less a tense than a present a sense of dreaming .

Wit and tragedy, both are evoked and invoked with consummate artistry clarity and immediacy: "And as I see these things in the light of lamp, all perishable and transient, how bound up I know I am to all that is human endeavor, to all that past and to all that shall be, to all that shall be lost and leave no trace," Long before this penultimate sentence, the vision is clear, through this prose that is not only a lens but a prism.