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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.