SEE NOW THEN. By Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 182 pages. $24.
“See Now Then” is Jamaica Kincaid’s most ambitious and hypnotic novel. “The way a life unfurls is never as you imagined it,” she writes. Yet the unfurling of a life, the very process of time, is Kincaid’s deep subject here, richly imagined.
Her fictional memoirist is Mrs. Sweet, an Antiguan immigrant who lives with her husband, Mr. Sweet, and their children in a Vermont house once owned by Shirley Jackson. Mrs. Sweet cycles from Now to Then and back in her mind, loving the loveliness of her young marriage and despairing at its ugly present form. Kincaid has taken this familiar, even snoozy scenario — the middle age marital unraveling — and transformed it into something weird.
Readers who know Kincaid know the Cinderella story of her life: At 17, she moved from Antigua to New York to work as an au pair. Somehow, while working in the daytime and taking classes at night, she managed to grab the attention of The New Yorker, publishing her first story there in 1978 and eventually marrying Allen Shawn, son of William Shawn, the longtime editor.
The Sweets broadly resemble Kincaid and Allen Shawn. She is a towering Caribbean woman. He is “such a small man, people sometimes mistook him for a rodent.” She writes in a little room off the kitchen, where she comes “alive in all her tenses.” He composes music in a room over the garage. She arrived “on a banana boat.” He is a prince of the kingdom, at home among smells (his mother’s French perfume) and sights (the Plaza Hotel) that shut her out. Her home base is a garden. His is a tall building. She goes out into the world. He stays in, phobic.
Mrs. Sweet discovers that Mr. Sweet “hates her very much,” but she also concedes that love comes in many configurations, hatred being one. Kincaid’s long rhythmic sentences mimic the winding contradictions of thought itself, and time. Mr. Sweet thinks, “I loved the way she could exaggerate, so that if she saw ten tulips in a vase, she would say she saw ten thousand daffodils at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance; she would sometimes put a rainbow in the sky, just because it was a beautiful day.”
Delight and disgust, it turns out, aren’t so far apart. Mr. Sweet undermines his delight with this jab: “It’s just that nothing was ever the way she said.” Eventually, he composes a nocturne titled “This Marriage is Dead.”
Mr. Sweet thinks of Mrs. Sweet sitting at her desk, mulling over her childhood wound: “from the wound itself she made a world and this world that she had made out of her own horror was full of interest and was even attractive.”
Making old horrors attractive and literary is Kincaid’s specialty, and domestic horror is one of the oldest storylines. Kincaid’s gift in “See Now Then” is to take the tawdry details of a broken family, revolting in many small ways, and amp them up with epic connections.
The children of the Sweet household are called Persephone and Heracles, perhaps spotlighting the family doom, but also opening a door for irony and broad comedy. Persephone is beautiful and harmonious. She is often kept in her father’s pocket, where her mother can’t find her. Mr. Sweet, on the other hand, “wishes his son safe passage to the edge of the universe in a faulty space capsule.”
The mighty Heracles is his father’s opposite in every way, a strapping athletic boy who races through his “chores” in heroic time (“his tasks so many, so many”). On the day of his birth, Mrs. Sweet cries so many happy tears that she gathers them up to make a pond. She says to herself, “His beauty will drown me, it is so much like the force of something immortal.” As he grows, the young Heracles goes from room to room, shoving furniture out the window. Soon Mrs. Sweet finds herself sweeping hydra heads off the floor.
Kincaid’s “See Now Then” straddles memory’s time zones, moving easily along Mrs. Sweet’s lifeline but also reaching back to a timeless mythical world. The story it tells, of family trials and wounds, is both age old and up to the minute. In the end, Kincaid gives Mrs. Sweet a way out of the dark: she waits for spring buds and adopts her mother’s motto: “Plunge ahead or buck up.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.