''I am not an artist, but I shall always like to be with the people who stand apart,'' says the ultrasensitive, self-absorbed, 19-year-old heroine of Jamaica Kincaid's new novel, Lucy, a sequel of sorts to her acclaimed 1985 coming-of-age story Annie John. Lucy Josephine Potter actually is an artist a writer in embryo, but all she has to show for it so far is a severe case of artistic temperament.
She is cross-grained and perversely proud, adept at imagining slights and inventing adversity, but no more so than Joyce's Stephen Dedalus and other fledgling artists, fictional or real, who are required by tradition to go through a sullen, defiant adolescence. ''My past was my mother,'' Lucy says, and people who stand apart for creative purposes must at some point give their past a good kick in order to get on with their first original work themselves.
This is why Lucy has left her mother and the beautiful but stifling little West Indian island where she grew up, and has taken a job as an au pair in a large unnamed American city, clearly New York. When not wondering at such novelties as elevators and snow, she seethes with resentment. The liberal blond couple whose four small daughters she tends treat her more like a friend than a servant, but she won't take friendship on unequal terms. She escapes mainly by savoring memories of her eager sexual awakenings back home and by seizing opportunities for other awakenings in the city.
There's always trouble in paradise if you know where to look. Lucy is the first to detect the adulterous husband's shenanigans that will shatter the perfect world of the woman who employs her. Meanwhile, she is haunted by thoughts of her mother, always remembering her advice, always identifying with the woman even as she hates her, always saving her never-opened letters. Lucy feels that the arrival of the first of three younger brothers when she was nine had cost her ''perhaps the only true love in my whole life that I would ever know.''
Apart from her true love for herself, that is. If her faux-naif voice doesn't occasionally remind you of The New Yorker, where this novel first appeared, it may remind you of a soulful undergraduate who goes on and on about her dreams, her feelings, her feelings about her dreams, etc. The novel lacks irony and dramatic tension. The other characters are blurs. What saves it is a combination of spare elegance and unsparing honesty. The feelings are much indulged but intensely real. B