Kincaid's ambitious new novel of Caribbean life (after Lucy, 1990, etc.) begins with the tantalizing promise of a memorable story about strong mothers and daughters--but then turns into a rhetorical riff on familiar ills of our time. Now in her 70s, Xuela, whose mother died in childbirth, tells of a life irrevocably shaped by a woman she never knew and by the children she herself never had. The idea of a daughter's life being as much her unknown mother's as her own is suggestive with dramatic potential, though here it seemingly becomes little more than excuse for a heavy dose of philosophy on the question of who one really is. Set on the island of Dominica, the tale is suffused with loss and angry grief: says the narrator, ""I came to feel that for my whole life I had been standing on a precipice . . . overwhelmed with sadness."" Reared for seven years in the home of the woman who washes her father's clothes, Xuela learns to survive by depending only on herself. After she moves back in with her father and his new wife, these are skills that serve her well when her stepmother tries to kill her; and they're equally useful when, attending high school, she becomes pregnant by the man of the house she's then living in and coolly arranges her own abortion. But there's something increasingly indulgent, even cruel, in this self-sufficiency and anger, both of which come to seem more theme-driven than dramatically organic, a quality suggested also in Xuela's rigidly sustained indifference to the man, a British doctor and white, whom she finally marries after first seducing him and then helping his first wife poison herself. Because he's a colonionalist, it's not possible for Xuela to love him, no matter that he loves her deeply and wants to be with her forever. Vintage, tough, cool Kincaid prose, though telling a story that ultimately chills and repels.