Kincaid breathes life into a figure unlike any in contemporary fiction in a story which captures the slow, unsullied pace of life in Antigua.
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, tooof 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 emergeexhausted, 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.