Once or twice upon a time…

Posted on June 22, 2012


Mout’ open, story jump out – Antiguan proverb

I finished Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr Potter over a week ago. I’ve been putting off writing the review because I feel as if somehow I’ve failed the book.  I wish I could like it more but I can’t. I’m sure it’s very clever and there is some beautiful writing (‘…she only felt the loss of the arm posts of such a thing, called a mother and a father’), but I just couldn’t fancy Mr Potter.

I feel as if I’ve gone on a date. The guy turns up. He’s way too good looking for little old me. He tells an amazing story of how he nearly died in an avalanche. He describes how he went to work for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Rwanda during the genocide. Interesting.  We arrange another date.  He’s still good looking, but in a way that’s beginning to seem normal. He tells the same amazing story about how he nearly died in an avalanche, in exactly the same ‘amazing’ words.  And the respect for someone who has worked in the Rwandan genocide wears thin when you realise that that and the avalanche story happened nearly two decades ago and that’s all he’s got – a near death experience and an experience near death.  Not sure I can be bothered with another date.   Especially as I know he’ll tell the same amazing story… Are you screaming yet! Imagine I repeated myself like this for the next 195 pages. You get some idea of one of the reasons why I managed to resist the charms of Mr Potter.

It all started out so well.

‘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, buy 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…’

 Isn’t it a marvellous opening? It’s like listening to the susurration of a Caribbean sea as it endlessly laps the shore.  You feel as if you’re in the hands of a master storyteller using a rhythm we understand from Friday afternoons at school.  The repetition and the rhythm guaranteed to calm you down enough to draw your attention away from the freedom within eyeshot out the window. Sit cross-legged boys and girls.  Settle down now.

 Once upon a time there was a giant. And the giant was so tall that he had clouds in his hair. And the giant was so tall that he could only see his feet when sitting down and he could only sit down in the middle of an empty desert or a lonely wilderness. And the giant was so tall that if you wanted to speak to him you’d have to be shot out of a cannon at his head or fly in a World War I fighter plane through the clouds in his hair.

 (By the way, this isn’t a real story. I just made it up. But it’s more exciting than anything that happens in Mr Potter.)   

Once settled though, children expect a story. They expect the villagers to be threatened by a warty dragon that only the giant can slay. Or they expect the giant to fall in love with a tiny girl who ends up getting taller after eating funky porridge, or who kisses the giant (after being shot directly onto his lips from a cannon, wearing a pink skate-boarding helmet), causing the giant to shrink because he’s really a cursed prince (and not one who ever went near snow or genocide).   Children expect something to happen. Anything to happen.  And this is problem number two with Mr Potter.  NOTHING happens and it happens repeatedly.   Well, that’s not strictly true.  Mr Potter picks up a couple from a ship, in a taxi he drives for someone else, and drives the couple to their house.  That’s it.  I do understand, really. This is the biography of an ordinary man. An imagined biography, because Kincaid didn’t know her father, the eponymous Mr Potter.  So she’s writing the minutiae of this imagined life. The inside bits.  Sadly, I’m not a fan of offal (that’s a lie, I love it, especially my friend Vuk’s liver…liver dish not his hepatic organ, obviously), but I got over stream of consciousness stuff after bingeing on D. H. Lawrence in my teens and, you know, things do happen to those Brangwen girls.

Then there’s problem number three which is harder to describe but is a matter of style.   Some examples…

  • Mr Potter only held the steering wheel in his two hands and the feel of it was familiar and then again the feel of it was not familiar.
  • And the world lay not before him and not behind him. He stood on the very ground that made up his world and nothing was lost and nothing was gained and then again everything was lost forever and ever.
  • The answer is yes and yes again and the answer is no, not really, not so at all.

This style can drive you completely mad or, then again, not mad at all.  And style is at the root of all my issues with Mr Potter.  I just didn’t enjoy reading it.  Because of that, I didn’t engage enough with the book to feel as outraged by it as Maya Jaggi  http://bit.ly/NYRTPG which is just as well.