Mr. Potter

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Overview

Jamaica Kincaid’s first obsession, the island of Antigua, comes vibrantly to life under the gaze of Mr. Potter, an illiterate taxi driver who makes his living along the wide, open roads that pass the only towns he has ever seen and the graveyard where he will be buried. The sun shines squarely overhead, the ocean lies on every side, and suppressed passion fills the air.

Misery infects the unstudied, slow pace of this island and of Mr. Potter’s days. As Kincaid’s narrative ...

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Mr. Potter: A Novel

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Overview

Jamaica Kincaid’s first obsession, the island of Antigua, comes vibrantly to life under the gaze of Mr. Potter, an illiterate taxi driver who makes his living along the wide, open roads that pass the only towns he has ever seen and the graveyard where he will be buried. The sun shines squarely overhead, the ocean lies on every side, and suppressed passion fills the air.

Misery infects the unstudied, slow pace of this island and of Mr. Potter’s days. As Kincaid’s narrative unfolds in linked vignettes, his story becomes the story of a vital, crippled community. Kincaid strings together a moving picture of Mr. Potter’s ancestors -- beginning with memories of his father, a poor fisherman, and his mother, who committed suicide -- and the outside world that presses in on his life, in the persons of his Lebanese employer and, later, a couple fleeing World War II. Within these surroundings, Mr. Potter struggles to live at ease: to purchase a car, to have girlfriends, to shake off the encumbrance of his daughters -- one of whom will return to Antigua after he dies -- to tell his story with equal measures of distance and sympathy.

In Mr. Potter, her most luminous, ambitious work to date, Kincaid breathes life into a figure unlike any in contemporary fiction, an individual consciousness emerging gloriously out of an unexamined life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The novelist known for her vivid and often harrowing depictions of women coming of age in impoverished tropical settings turns her attention to a male protagonist with Mr. Potter, a luminous portrait of an ordinary, illiterate man, his century, and his island home.
From the Publisher
“Whatever it is, it's exquisite…Jamaica Kincaid strings words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters together in such a way that one is almost compelled to think sideways and backward and forward and to stop thinking when the thinking one is thinking becomes too tangential and fragmentary to represent thought or thinking about thought when thought becomes too intense to think about its capriciousness….the one truth is in its exquisite rendering, its gorgeous recounting, its telling interstices and artful interweavings incrementally revealing the heartbreaking story of the grown daughter who did not even know she had a father in Antigua…[Mr. Potter] is nothing if not beautiful, compassionate and entirely too moving to bear too much thinking about thinking about it, so awe-inspiring and gut-wrenching are its contents.” -- Globe and Mail

“Kincaid's fiction aims to render the known and the unknowable at the same time. Her stories are built up with layers of repeated sentences and phrases, like waves pounding on the shore, leaving the reader to decipher the whole story the way a geologist might examine exposed strata of rock.” -- The Toronto Star

“It’s a fairy tale told with a biblical flavour…each word, each observation, each page echoes the one before, lulling you into a sense of surrender.” -- The Toronto Star

"Mr. Potter is Kincaid's most poetic and affecting noel to date. Kincaid writes of [Mr. Potter] as though she were speaking her breathless sentences aloud. The result is prose more emotionally charged, more repetitive, more reminiscent of Gertrude Stein than ever before." -- The Washington Post

"By seeking to understand her father and herself, her father's past and her own present, the narrator also struggles to come to terms with the complex and contradictory, at times overwhelming, fact of existence itself. The repetition in the prose, the many-angled viewings and the pauses in narration render the perpetual astonishment of the sensitive observer, as well as the discovery inherent in the process of writing. Even when Kincaid's prose is at its most lyrical, it's never gratuitous." -- Gregory Miller, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"The writing truly soars . . . Kincaid's lyricism ascends into the realm of the sublime, achieving the rhythmic and incantatory effect she's after and replicating a kind of oral storytelling via a written text." -- Andrew Roe, The San Francisco Chronicle

"As with all of Kincaid's novels, Mr. Potter may be read as a parable of colonial history . . . Mr. Potter portrays emotional poverty, reflected in often cruel, always sharp language. Kincaid's storytelling relies on repetition, building on simple phrases to create scene fragments and anecdotes . . . It gives Kincaid's story mythic heft, making Mr. Potter not merely a character, but an archetype." -- Philadelphia Inquirer

"Kincaid is a vibrant and mysterious poetic writer . . . To love in this slim little novel is the rich drumbeat of Kincaid's inimitable prose." -- Orlando Sentinel

"She has always been a superb stylist, but in Mr. Potter, Jamaica Kincaid's prose takes on an exalted, almost biblical tone. The writing soars and sings . . . Kincaid gives us a complex portrait, told in soaring prose, of a powerful man with little in the way of accomplishments and of the poverty-stricken island he never managed to transcend." -- Roger Harris, The Newark Sunday Star-Ledger

"Kincaid, with her gently rhythmic prose, has painted another searing portrait and has done so with typical brilliance . . . In narrating Mr. Potter's 'biography,' Elaine embraces her father, offering to him, to herself, and to the reader the beautiful gift of a life examined." -- Susanna Baird, Boston magazine

"As in her previous books, Kincaid has exquisite control over her narrator's deep-seated rage, which drives the story but never overpowers it and is tempered by a clear-eyed sympathy. Her prose here is more incantatory and hypnotic than ever . . . This is [a] taut and often spellbinding novel." -- Publishers Weekly

"What she's written, really, is a meditation on Antigua, the island where she was born, on fatherhood, motherhood, emotional cruelty. She captures moments of pure consciousness, isolating her characters, for emphasis, as only an artist can, stripping them of context, and then rebuilding their world before our very eyes: adding weather, color, song, pain and memory. This is a punishing, gorgeous book that gives life to an island, to its Middle Eastern refugees and its black business class, to its poor mothers and abandoned children . . . By the end, Kincaid has, magically, transformed the reader's consciousness." -- The Baltimore Sun

"Mr. Potter may be an illiterate taxi driver in Antigua, but the story Kincaid creates for him is as rich and complex as that of any aristocrat." -- Library Journal

"Like Kincaid's Lucy and Autobiography of My Mother, her latest is a meditation on the invisible bonds -- the ties of family and island community -- that weigh on her characters, and on the strains of history simmering below the plot's deceptively tranquil surface. Here is the recurring message beneath all the rhythmic run-on sentences: the saving power of written word. Which is, of course, the familiar leitmotif of all of Kincaid's mesmerizing work." -- Time Out New York

"Astonishing . . . gorgeous . . . Kincaid is a fierce, idiosyncratic stylist, piling up emphatic sentences to achieve a mesmerizing poetry." -- Paul Evans, Book

"Like waves, Kincaid's language keeps doubling back hypnotically, picking up details and nuances along the way . . . Conjuring his name repeatedly, she brings Mr. Potter into the light. In writing his story, Kincaid makes him unflinchingly real." -- People

“A hypnotically repetitious narrative telling of a sunbaked island Antigua and the community that has washed up on it, as seen through the eyes of an illiterate taxi driver.” -- The Bookseller

“Kincaid continues to write with a unique, compelling voice that cannot be found anywhere else. Her small books are worth a pile of thicker -- and hollower -- ones.” -- Jeffrey Rodger, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Ms. Kincaid writes with passion and conviction…[with] a poet’s understanding of how politics and history, private and public events, overlap and blur.” -- Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Writers wish for perfect readers, but readers wish even harder for perfect writers and rarely find them…Jamaica Kincaid is about as perfect as it’s possible to be.” -- Carolyn See, The Washington Post

“[Kincaid] is a consummate balancer of feeling and craft. She takes no short cuts or long cuts, breathes no windy pomposities: she connects herself with being direct…So lush, composed, direct, off, sharp, and brilliantly lit are Kincaid’s word paintings that the reader’s presuppositions are cut in two by her seemingly soft edges.” -- Jacqueline Austin, Voice Literary Supplement

From The Critics
In three acclaimed novels, Annie John, Lucy and The Autobiography of My Mother, Jamaica Kincaid has examined the bonds between mothers and daughters. They're stories of heartbreak and bitterness that possess a hard, crystalline beauty.That beauty is largely one of language: Kincaid is a fierce, idiosyncratic stylist, piling up emphatic sentences to achieve a mesmerizing poetry. Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie and the poet Derek Walcott are among her admirers. They see her as a truth-teller who moves beyond conventional storytelling and its pleasures (plot, character development, incident) toward writing that prizes an absolute, unadorned honesty.

Ever since she made her name with stories published in The New Yorker in the late '70s, Kincaid has never tried hard to win over readers. Whether penning nonfiction about her native West Indies, as in the brilliant diatribe A Small Place, or turning out incantatory and angry fiction, Kincaid doesn't strive to entertain. Reading her, like listening to the thorniest of jazz, is not always easy.

Mr. Potter, her new novel about a father and daughter, is her most difficult fiction yet. The book is astonishing and baffling, infuriating and gorgeous. On the island of Antigua, Kincaid's birthplace and the setting of all of her fiction, Mr. Potter lives seventy unremarkable years. He casts no shadows, forms attachments to no one, doesn't even acknowledge many of the daughters he fathers out of wedlock. One such daughter, Elaine, tells his story, and it's her story, too—of loss, alienation and anger. Toward the novel's end, she mourns their lifelong separation. "And he left my life thenforever, his back disappearing through the door of the house in which I lived, his back disappearing up the street on which stood the house in which I lived; and his appearance was like his absence, leaving my surface untroubled, causing not so much as the tiniest ripple, leaving only an empty space inside that is small when I am not aware of its presence and large when I am."

In this audacious novel, we're given a main character with whom it's nearly impossible to sympathize. There's precious little action and less dialogue. Even synopsizing the story is tough. A chauffeur, Mr. Potter drives all day under the blazing Caribbean sun; he hardly interacts with his employer, Mr. Shoul, a cipher from "Lebanon or Syria or someplace near there." Very briefly, Potter's life haphazardly intersects with those of a husband and wife in exile from World War II. We learn a little of his father, a Hemingwayesque fisherman disappointed by the sea. We learn a bit less about the women with whom he produces offspring. He breathes; he dies.

And yet Kincaid does manage to summon up in us a genuine pathos for the man and, more so, his daughter. The author does this with word torrents that build and crest, plunging us mercilessly into the emptiness of Potter's life. The book begins, for example, with a 150-word sentence, of which a short excerpt captures the tone: "And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky...." Again and again, Kincaid hammers thusly away. If the reader gives in, he or she may emerge—exhausted, but with some sense of the emotional constriction, the oppression, the weariness of these characters' lives.

In an interview with Mother Jones in 1997, Kincaid insisted, "I feel it's my duty to make everyone a little less happy." She's a provocateur, an upsetter, a writer who issues a wake-up call: Everything is not just fine. A lyrical engineer, Kincaid blends the personal and political (Potter is less an individual than a symbol of colonial oppression) with fiction and memoir (before she became Jamaica Kincaid in 1973, she was Elaine Potter Richardson; that her novel's narrator shares the name only underscores Kincaid's artful confusion).

Torn from Antigua at seventeen and apprenticed as an au pair in New York, Kincaid published her first book, the story collection At the Bottom of the River, in 1983. Now she lives in Bennington, Vermont, with her husband, a composer, and she teaches at Harvard. It's a far cry from the poverty of her island beginnings. Still, throughout her career she's sounded a keynote of defiance, one whose source is always Antigua, her parents' abandonment and the legacy of colonial shame. Mr. Potter is yet one more piece of this dissonant music. It unsettles and it seethes. Yet within it there is a kind of incandescence, a certain beauty, a strange fascination with cruelty and pain.

Publishers Weekly
Kincaid follows up My Brother and Autobiography of My Mother with another unsentimental, unsparing meditation on family and the larger forces that shape an individual's world. The novel follows the life of one man, Mr. Potter, from his birth to his death (not necessarily in that order) on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Mr. Potter, a native Antiguan of African descent, works as a chauffeur for a Mideastern immigrant and then for himself. His world is full of displaced persons a client who is a Holocaust refugee, a lover from the island of Dominica but Mr. Potter gives no thought to his own displacement or the events in the wider world that have brought these people together. In fact, he doesn't think about very much besides securing creature comforts; at the book's opening, he is unreflective and unselfconscious "between him and all that he saw there was no distance of any kind." But what seems like a conventional narrative about a man's coming to consciousness becomes something quite different as the reader gradually gets to know the book's narrator, one of Mr. Potter's many illegitimate daughters, who slowly reveals her relationship to her father and whose voice comes to dominate the story. As in her previous books, Kincaid has exquisite control over her narrator's deep-seated rage, which drives the story but never overpowers it and is tempered by a clear-eyed sympathy. Her prose here is more incantatory and hypnotic than ever, with repeating phrases ("And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way, so harshly bright...") that can occasionally seem mannered. This, however, is a relatively rare occurrence in an otherwise taut and often spellbinding novel. (May) Forecast: After a number of pleasing but peripheral nonfiction projects (My Garden (Book): and Talk Stories), Kincaid returns to fiction. With My Brother (a memoir) and Autobiography of My Mother (a novel), Mr. Potter forms a kind of loose, autobiographical family series and should win the same acclaim and interest as its predecessors. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this latest from the author of The Autobiography of My Mother, the narrator composes a (hi)story to discover and describe her biological father, an illiterate taxi chauffeur in Antigua whom she does not know. Rhythmic and lilting, her speech patterns beautifully capture the sorrow and indifference of Antigua and of Mr. Potter himself. Starting with Mr. Potter's own fisherman father and then moving on to his various employers and the women in his life, the fictive genealogy is at once incomplete, indifferent, vivid, and as complex as the workings of one of Mr. Potter's cars: thousands of different movements repeating themselves but moving forward the hulking motion of history and family. For the daughter, this is a narrative of atonement; to say her father's name and to "imagine his life at the same time makes him whole and complete, not singular and fragmented." Like Kincaid's previous works, Mr. Potter is full of disillusion; the narrator sees through the world to the paradox at its center, acknowledging a dialectic in which "your joy is your sorrow, your joy has not turned to sorrow, your joy was always your sorrow." The result is vivid and affecting reading. Recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Lyle D. Rosdahl, San Antonio P.L. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious but often sententious attempt to link the story of a tropical island Everyman to great events of the era. The mood is somber, and the theme—the belief that the world is indifferent and life essentially sad ("for its glorious beginnings end and the end is always an occasion for sadness, no matter what anyone says")—may be depressing but it's certainly valid. Which makes for a downer of a book as Elaine Cynthia, a writer, tells the uneventful story of her father, called Mr. Potter throughout, who was born in 1922 and died 70 years later, facts that Elaine repeats . . . and repeats . . . as she does most details. The intention may be to create an incantatory rhythm paralleling the continuous ebb and flow of life itself, but the effect, unfortunately, is tiresome. Like her father, Elaine is illegitimate, one of many daughters Mr. Potter fathered on the island of Antigua. He was the illegitimate son of Nathaniel Potter, fisherman, and a sixteen-year-old girl, who, when he was five, gave him to another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd, then walked into the sea and drowned. The Shepherds were cold and distant, but Mr. Shepherd did teach Mr. Potter how to drive, a skill later turned into a lifetime job as a chauffeur. Mr. Potter works for Mr. Shoul, a Lebanese businessman who fled from Damascus, and he also meets Dr. Weizenger, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia who sets up a medical practice These men's lives suggest a wider world beyond Mr. Potter's, but the illiterate chauffeur is more interested in women—Elaine's mother, an assistant to Dr Weizenger, is one of his numerous conquests—than in international events. Elaine describes her brief childhood encounter with herfather, his grave, and observes "how ordinary is the uniqueness of life as it appears in each individual." Disappointingly, too labored and self-conscious to achieve its ends.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780676974706
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Publication date: 8/12/2003
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 4.82 (w) x 7.75 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Mr. Potter is Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in six years. Her other works include The Autobiography of My Mother, her last novel, and My Brother, a memoir for which she was awarded the Prix Fémina Étranger in 2000. She lives with her family in Vermont.
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Read an Excerpt

And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, but Mr. Potter did not note this, so accustomed was he to this, the sun in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky; if the sun had not been in its usual place, that would have made a great big change in Mr. Potter's day, it would have meant rain, however briefly such a thing, rain, might fall, but it would have changed Mr. Potter's day, so used was he to the sun in its usual place, way up above and in the middle of the sky. Mr. Potter breathed in his normal way, his heart was beating in its normal way, up and down underneath the covering of his black skin, up and down underneath his white knitted cotton vest next to his very black skin, up and down underneath his plainly woven white cotton shirt that was on top of the knitted cotton vest which lay next to his skin; so his heart breathed in its normal way. And he put on his trousers and in the pocket of his trousers he placed a white handkerchief; and all this was as normal as the way his heart beat; all this, his putting on his clothes in just that way, as normal as the way his heart beat, the heart beating normally and the clothes reassuring to Mr. Potter and to things beyond Mr. Potter, things that did not know they needed such reassurance.

Walking to Mr. Shoul's garage to begin his day of sitting in Mr. Shoul's car and taking passengers to and fro, to and fro (he was a chauffeur, he did not mind being a chauffeur), Mr. Potter took shelter from the sun by walking through narrow streets and alleys. He saw a dog, her breasts distended and swollen, her stomach distended and swollen, lying in the shade of a tree native to some of the dry vast plains of Africa, but he did not think that this dog, pregnant and weary from carrying her pups, seeking shelter from that sun, was a reflection of any part of him, not even in the smallest way; and Mr. Potter saw a man sitting in his doorway and this man was blind but his ears were most sensitive to the sounds of footsteps coming toward him or footsteps going away from him, and when he heard the sounds of feet coming toward him he got ready to beg the owner of the footsteps for money; this man knew the sound of Mr. Potter's footsteps and he had never asked the owner of those footsteps for anything of any kind. And seeing the blind man sitting in the doorway with his beggar's cup, seeing the blind man expelling into the ground a mouthful of the thick, sticky white phlegm that had slowly gathered in his throat, Mr. Potter did not think that any part of him was reflected in this sight before him. Going toward Mr. Shoul's garage, Mr. Potter saw a boy going to school, he saw most of the garments one family owned hanging on a string of wire, being dried in that way. He saw a woman smoking a cigarette, he smelled the stink coming from some gray-colored liquid that lay stagnant in the gutter, he saw some birds sitting on a fence, and none of this reminded him of himself in any way and that was only because everything he saw was so closely bound to him; between him and all that he saw there was no distance of any kind. And so Mr. Potter entered Corn Alley and walked down it and then left it altogether, and Mr. Potter turned onto Nevis Street and he was then at Mr. Shoul's garage. Mr. Shoul was not there and did not need to be. And on the day Mr. Potter met Dr. Weizenger the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, shining in its usual way, so harsh and bright, and making the shadows pale and making the shadows themselves seek shelter and causing Mr. Potter to make his way to Mr. Shoul's garage through a passage of narrow alleys and shaded backstreets; on such a day Mr. Potter met Dr. Weizenger.

In Mr. Shoul's garage there were three cars and these cars all belonged to Mr. Shoul, but Mr. Shoul himself was not in the garage with his cars. Mr. Shoul was upstairs in his own house above the garage where the three cars were, and Mr. Shoul by then, that is by the time Mr. Potter arrived in the garage where there were the three cars, had eaten eggs and oat porridge and bread that had been buttered and cheese and had drunk cups of Lyons tea and had said unkind things in an unkind way to a woman who washed his family's clothes and then said unkind things in an unkind way to the woman who had just made his breakfast. These two women were in no way related to him, he did not know them at all, they, like Mr. Potter, were the people he had lived among since leaving that place so far away, the Lebanon or Syria, someplace like that, barren and old. And in the Lebanon or Syria, that old, barren place, Mr. Shoul's breakfast would not have been like this, abundant and new (the eggs had been laid just the day before and the entire breakfast was warm and carefully cooked), but Mr. Shoul could adjust to anything and did adjust to everything as it came his way, and many things came his way, good and bad, and he stayed when it was good and left soon after things got bad. But now things were good and Mr. Shoul stayed at his breakfast, for Mr. Potter was in the garage, wiping down the cars, starting with the one he, Mr. Potter, would drive that day, the one he drove every day, and then wiping down the car that his friend Mr. Martin would drive and then wiping down the car Mr. Joseph would drive. Mr. Joseph was not a friend of Mr. Potter's, Mr. Joseph was only an acquaintance.

And on that day Mr. Potter drove Mr. Shoul's car to the jetty to await a large steamer coming from some benighted place in the world, someplace far away where there had been upheavals and displacements and murder and terror. Mr. Potter was not unfamiliar with upheavals and displacements and murder and terror; his very existence in the world in which he lived had been made possible by such things, but he did not dwell on them and he could not dwell on them any more than he could dwell on breathing. And so Mr. Potter met Dr. Weizenger.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2002

    Nice writing style!

    This is a page turner. I recommend this realistic, smooth flowing, thought provoking novel!

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