Review: Mr Potter by Jamaica Kincaid

Maya Jaggi follows an unresolved foray into past lives in Mr Potter by Jamaica Kincaid

Mr Potter
by Jamaica Kincaid
195pp, Chatto, £12.99

Jamaica Kincaid's searing memoir My Brother (1997), about her half-brother's death from Aids, was her only essay into autobiography. Yet her life unfolds spectrally in her fiction, where intense love-hate relationships between mothers and daughters mirror the stifling embrace of colonies by the "mother country". At the Bottom of the River (1978) and Annie John (1983) chart a coming of age in British Antigua, Kincaid's birthplace and the subject of her broadside A Small Place (1988). In Lucy (1990), a teenage girl is sent as a "servant" to New York, as was Kincaid.

The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) mythologised her mother's early life, while Mr Potter explores the "spectre" of an absent father. Its narrator is Elaine Cynthia Potter - Kincaid's original name - who shares the author's birthdate. Her parents, like Kincaid's, whose names they bear, separated before she was born: Annie Richardson from Dominica, and Roderick Potter, an illiterate taxi driver who refused to acknowledge Elaine as his daughter. From this anchor in fact, Elaine, the autobiographical persona, imagines Roderick's life with his fisherman father and a mother who, tiring of her five-year-old son, walks into the sea. As Elaine reveals the source of the hatred between her parents that has scarred her own life, she traces a cycle of deprivation and abandonment which her father visits on his 11 daughters with their eight "altogether different mothers".

This purports to be Mr Potter's story, but builds into an indictment of his irresponsibility. Mr Potter, oblivious to the suffering of abandoned women and children in "houses that were really a single room with four windows", sings and preens, reserving his love for the cars he covets.

There is an emotional truth to this skewering of feckless fathers, with its erupting rage: "Mr Potter did not have a uterus that shuddered in agony, for he was a man, and he did not have a menstrual cycle, for he was a man.... I never knew him at all, had never touched him, or known how he smelled after a night of sleep or after a full day's work." Kincaid also hints at the history behind this dereliction. Mr Potter's lifetime "began in the year 1492", and unfolds in the shadow of an Anglican church built by his African slave ancestors. Colonial mimicry fuels his neglect of his families.

Yet the problems begin with a puzzling refrain: Mr Potter is an illiterate man who leads an unexamined life, but has produced the marvel of a literate daughter. As Elaine reflects after his death: "Only because I am his daughter... is Mr Potter's life known, his smallness becomes large, his anonymity is stripped away, his silence broken. Mr Potter himself says nothing, nothing at all."

This equation of literacy with self-consciousness is troubling. How are we to take the statement that: "because Mr Potter could neither read nor write, he could not understand himself", or that: "Mr Potter did not own himself, he had no private thoughts"? This may work as allegory, but it flattens and falsifies individual lives. Rather than history working through character, people become ciphers. While Mr Potter's humanity recedes under the weight of an island and its history, peripheral characters are unconvincingly set up to embody 20th-century upheavals.

The tension between historical understanding and personal animus is never resolved. Writing becomes revenge; telling someone else's story can be a means of silencing them. At its worst, Elaine's voice is vindictive and self-aggrandising. Mordant irony no doubt drives Kincaid's description of the island's people as being of "no account". Yet rather than dignifying the lives of the "no account" people that it describes, this novel seems to bask in the author's godlike power: not so much to give life, as to withhold it. The effect, far from being humane, is sour and self-regarding.


Maya Jaggi

The GuardianTramp

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