At the start of the novel, Annie John is 10 years old. She lives with her parents in an idyllic village where she basks in her parents' attention, performs well in school, and has few responsibilities. Her mother is her best friend, and Annie wants nothing more from her life than to grow up exactly like her. Once Annie begins puberty, however, her relationship with her mother begins to change. Mother coaxes Annie to take on her own identity and stop acting like a "mini me." Mother becomes obsessed with turning Annie into a "young woman," which Annie despises. Annie is intelligent, strong, brave, popular, and ambitious, so she bucks cultural expectations that she be demure, polite, and well-mannered at all times. She also loathes the idea of marriage. As Annie's mother pushes her away, Annie forms a deep resentment toward her. She no longer views her mother as a best friend and companion but compares her to a serpent. Whatever her mother wants her to do, Annie does the opposite. She spends her teenage years lying to her mother and seeking out new ways of disappointing her, before leaving her altogether and moving to England at age 17.
Mother lives and breathes for her only child, the spirited Annie John with whom she shares her name. Whatever little Annie needs, Mother happily performs, whether it's carrying Annie on her back at the swimming hole, sewing small outfits that match her own, or pre-chewing the girl's food. Mother and Annie spend every waking moment together until Annie turns 12. Around that time Mother begins pushing her baby out of the nest. She tells Annie that she needs to pick out her own fabric for her clothes, stop playing marbles, and start focusing on her future. Mother adheres to traditional British culture and dislikes much of her native Antiguan culture, which is why she forbids Annie to play with kids like the Red Girl, who represent the native life Annie should be leaving behind. Mother also obsesses over Annie's sexual purity, calling her a slut simply for talking to boys in the street. It is clear Mother loves Annie and wants the best for her, but her changed attitude, likely meant to encourage Annie's maturity, ends up pushing her away.
Annie's father is 35 years older than his wife, Annie's mother. Before marrying Mother, Father had a long string of lovers, some of whom he impregnated, before Annie was born. Now, Annie and her mother must protect themselves from black magic in case these jilted women curse them. As a child Father's parents abandoned him and moved to South America. He was raised by his grandmother, whose death traumatized him when he was 18. His retelling this story to Annie is one of the few times the readers see the two characters interact. The other is when Annie falls ill and Father carries her on his back to the doctor. Father works hard as a carpenter to support his family but leaves all the domestic work and childrearing to his wife.
When Annie starts her new school at the age of 12, she immediately gravitates toward Gwen, a small, beautiful girl Annie handpicks to be her best friend. Before long the two girls are inseparable, walking to and from school together as well as spending all their recess time together. They obsess over the usual teenage things, like boys and their bodies, showing particular fascination with the growth of their breasts. Annie meets Gwen at the same time that her relationship with her mother begins to sour, so she heaps all her affection onto her new best friend. By the end of the novel, however, Annie realizes Gwen is just another girl eager to get married and start a family.
The Red Girl
The Red Girl is a girl with flaming red hair who lives in Annie's village. Unlike Annie's strict household, the Red Girl has few rules in her family. Her mother doesn't force her to wash or brush her hair and doesn't monitor the girl's behavior. To the reader the Red Girl seems neglected, but to Annie the girl seems free. Mother forbids Annie from socializing with the Red Girl because she's filthy, impoverished, and it's unclear whether she even attends school. Annie begins secretly meeting the girl at the lighthouse to play marbles, another activity Mother forbids, and explore their sensuality through a habitual practice of pinching and kissing each other. When Annie starts menstruating, she forgets all about her friendship with the Red Girl, who eventually moves away.