Jamaica Kincaid

"Mr. Potter"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson JUN 26, 2002)

This is perhaps the saddest, but most wise and beautiful book that you will read this year. It is perhaps the saddest, but most wise and beautiful book that you will ever read. It may change your life, if not certainly your heart. However, to acknowledge author Jamaica Kincaid's fatalistic undercurrent, it may do nothing to you at all.


Kincaid's personal history is well-known: Born in 1949 into poverty on the Caribbean island of Antigua, at age 17, she emigrated to the U.S. from St. John's, Antigua, to become an au pair in New York. (She has said in interviews that "servant" is the word she prefers.)

Energetic, intense, and thoughtful, her servant days were numbered. For several years, she took odd jobs. Some involved writing. In 1978, Kincaid began freelancing for The New Yorker, at that time under the literary leadership of William Shawn. Initially, she wrote for the magazine's "Talk of the Town" section. Shawn encouraged her work, and, she acknowledges helped her find her voice. She began writing short stories, direct and formal, yet highly personal. Then books. These were about the life, the family, and the poverty-ridden culture that she had left behind.

This latest novel, Mr. Potter, is a lyrical and rhythmic prose poem. The book is narrated in the first person from an almost cosmological perspective. It is an attempt to make sense of conditions where conditions are harsh beyond description, and where sense is a luxury, if not a fiction.

"Mr. Potter was my father, and my father's name was Mr. Potter," the narrator says. This sentence is repeated as a constant refrain throughout the book, as the narrative bends back upon itself. Stories are told and then retold. Phrases are repeated and then repeated again. Characters appear and reappear. The novel is a family history, but it has a circularity that communicates a harsh inevitability.

An Antiguan chauffeur, Mr. Potter is described simply: "his chauffeur's cap worn jauntily on his head, his short well-ironed, the crease down the front of his trousers stiffly in place, his teeth gleaming in the harsh light of the sun..."

The jaunty Mr. Potter was responsible for fathering dozens of "girl babies," the narrator among these, by women who lived "in houses that had only one room and four windows and sometimes two doors." Then, he would leave these impoverished mothers and his daughters to fend for themselves, to do this "where each day held its own peril, and each day's peril was so unbearable and then so ordinary, as if it were breathing, and in this way suffering became normal, and in this way suffering became life itself."

Mr. Potter abandoned Annie Victoria Richardson, the narrator's mother, when her daughter was seven months "in the womb." Throughout his entire life, which began in 1922 and ended seventy years later, Mr. Potter never acknowledged his daughter.

The author makes no major moral judgements or apologies. An underlying anger is tempered by a kind of acceptance. "And because Mr. Potter could neither read nor write, he could not understand himself, he could not make himself known to others, he did not know himself, not that such things would have brought him any amount of happiness."

Kincaid's characters are trapped by a lack of self-awareness, constrained by their rigid and unforgiving environment. At best, they live in a kind of purgatory. Some escape, like Elfrida Robinson, Mr. Potter's mother, who abandoned him to strangers when he was five years old and ended her life at age twenty-one simply by "walking into the sea." Some escape by performing daily rituals over and over and then over again with no thought of why.

Like all of us, Kincaid's characters struggle for meaning: "how in some dim and distant way we feel we are nothing and how certain we are that we are everything, all that is to be is present in us and no thing or idea of any kind will replace us."

The narrator asks complex philosophical questions: Is joy simply a form of sorrow? What is life but simply a painful journey to death? Do individual lives actually have any consequence?

"Can a human being exist in a wilderness, a world so empty of human feeling: love and justice; a world in which love, and even that, justice, only exist from time to time and in small quantities, or unexpectedly, like a wild seedling of some necessary and common food (rice would do, or corn would do, or grain of any kind)? The answer is yes and yes again and the answer is no, not really, not so at all."

However, as we read (and one cannot help but read, the book so pulls you along), we slowly realize that we are witnessing a kind of transcendence, for the narrator, herself, did escape, and she is telling this tale. (We learn the narrator's name, Elaine Cynthia Potter, late in the book.)

"And because Mr. Potter could neither read nor write," Elaine says, "he made someone who could do so, who could even love doing so, reading and writing." Supporting the novel's refrain, she later repeats, "And from Mr. Potter I was made, and I can read and write and even love doing so."

This is perhaps the saddest, but most wise and beautiful book that you will read this year. It is perhaps the saddest, but most wise and beautiful book that you will ever read. It may change your life, if not certainly your heart. Or it may do nothing to you at all. Fortunately, the latter is unlikely.

Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

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About the Author:

Jamaica KincaisJamaica Kincaid was born in 1949 as Elaine Potter Richardson on the island of Antigua. She lived with her stepfather, a carpenter, and her mother until 1965 when she was sent to Westchester, New York to work as an au pair. In Antigua, she completed her secondary education under the British system due to Antigua's status as a British colony until 1967. She went on to study photography at the New York School for Social Research after leaving the family for which she worked, and also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire for a year.

Her first writing experience involved a series of articles for Ingenue magazine. In 1973, she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid because her family disapproved of her writing. Through her writing, she befriended George W.S. Trow, a writer for the New Yorker, who began writing "Talk of the Town" pieces about her. As a result, Kincaid met the editor of the magazine, William Shawn, who offered her a job. Kincaid later married Shawn's son, Allen, a composer and Bennington College professor, and they now have two children.

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