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Jamaica Kincaid: Mr. Potter

This is a beautiful poetical novel about ordinary people who more or less drift through life in the small Caribbean island of Antigua. The focus of the novel is, of course, Mr. Potter and we follow his life from his birth to his death (and beyond) at age seventy, though definitely not in chronological order. His story, as we learn about twenty pages into the book, is narrated by his daughter Elaine Cynthia Potter (Kincaid’s real name is Elaine Potter Richardson and, as Elaine Cynthia Potter’s mother’s surname (she never marries Potter) is Richardson, we must assume that this novel is, at least in parts, autobiographical). Mr. Potter’s father is Nathaniel Potter, a man who is illiterate, who works as a fisherman but not very successfully and who has, by his own account, fathered eleven children by eight different women. Life seemed to happen to Nathaniel and, indeed, to Mr. Potter’s mother who was still relatively young when she walked over to Rat Island (joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus) and then walked into the sea and drowned. Soon after, Nathaniel takes ill and dies and Mr. Potter is brought up by foster parents. Like his father, he will never learn to read or write.

Though he never learns to read or write, he does learn to drive, as his foster parents have a car and he is able to turn this into a career. In particular, when Mr. Shoul, after drifting around the world after leaving Damascus, comes to the island, he works as Mr. Shoul’s chauffeur. He saves money to get his own car. His first attempt at saving is unsuccessful when the narrator’s mother, seven months pregnant with the narrator, leaves Mr. Potter and takes his savings. As a result, the narrator never gets to know her father, seeing him a couple of times on the island, and this novel is undoubtedly an attempt to come to terms with this loss. But Mr. Potter does manage to make further savings and buy a car and then start a taxi fleet. Like his father, he is not a loyal husband and, unlike his father, he is only able to father girls, though his greatest love is for Louis, a fat, slow, lazy boy, who is his wife’s son but the biological son not of Mr. Potter but of the second largest undertaker on the island. Indeed, when Mr. Potter is buried – the grave is full of water and there has been torrential rain at the time he died – his wife and his daughters quarrel, particularly when they find out that he has left his money to a distant relative.

Mr. Potter does have a first name. It is Roderick. His mother was initially going to name him Rodney, after Admiral Rodney (according to the narrator, a criminal and pirate) but then changed it to Roderick, though, as a child, he is known as Drickie and, as an adult, as Mr. Potter. It is as Mr. Potter that his daughter knows him. But the fairly anonymous name of Mr. Potter is apposite as we see him only through a distant third party, his daughter, and he remains a fairly indistinct figure, a man, like his father, drifting through life, a man of little significance in the world but, nevertheless, one who gets through seventy years and, almost by accident, leaves a daughter who is literate and who has clearly made something of herself. But she herself recognises that what she is and has become is due, at least in part, to Mr. Potter.

Publishing history

First published by Farrar, Straus in 2002