MR. POTTER by Jamaica Kincaid


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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 her father, 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.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-21494-8
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2002


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