“See Now Then” – Jamaica Kincaid’s first new novel in over a decade – is bold and beautiful but best read aloud. In fact, it would make an excellent play, a tragedy complete with a Greek chorus (dubbed Now and Then).
But it is a book and, at first, this seems something of a drawback as Mrs. Sweet, its chief narrator, speaks in an endless stream of words, her thoughts often spreading over several pages before culminating – at long last – in a period.
Joycean? Yes, and also much like the role of Winnie in the Samuel Beckett play “Happy Days” – both Winnie and Kincaid addressing us in a rush that we recognize as an actual process of thought.
As Mrs. Sweet tells us early on, from her home in Vermont, “she was looking out at her life: from the Shirley Jackson house (where she lived), across the way lay the mountains Green and Anthony and laying beneath them were the rivers: Paran and Battenkill and Branch and Mettowee, bodies of water, full of trout hungry for a midafternoon hatch of invertebrates, some flowing into the Hudson River, one of many tributaries to that large body of water, the Atlantic Ocean, and she was thinking of her now, knowing that it would most certainly become a Then even as it was a Now, for the present will be now then and the past is now then and the future will be a now then, and that the past and the present and the future has no permanent present tense, has no certainty in regard to right now, and she gathered up her children, the young Hercules who would always be so, no matter what befell him, and the beautiful Persephone, who would always be so, beautiful and perfect and just.”
Kincaid’s style here certainly takes some getting used to – but “See Now Then” is, blessedly, much more than its often-wearing prose: It is the story of a marriage within which Mrs. Sweet was, for many years, quite happy. But that was Then, and this is Now. Mrs. Sweet is Now broken in two – and wants to spill the internal chaos her shattered marriage causes her all over the pages of “See Now Then.”
Her tale is also an invitation to consider what actually is now, was then and might be in our own lives – while realizing time is too fleeting to pinpoint any of it, a fact that causes Mrs. Sweet to step out of chronology to ruminate instead.
That her life parallels Kincaid’s own should come as no surprise. Kincaid’s fiction has often been, to some extent, autobiographical – which makes “See Now Then” particularly juicy, Kincaid’s former husband, the composer Allen Shawn, being well-known in his own right.
As Mrs. Sweet (read Kincaid) tells it, their long marriage ended because of Mr. Sweet’s inability to understand a basic component of love (and her inability to know this).
“… love, love and love in all its forms and configurations, hatred being one of them, and yes, Mr. Sweet did love her, his hatred being a form of his love for her,” she laments at one point, later musing, “… she loved and she loved and she loved and Mr. Sweet fell in love with her because of the passion with which she could love all the many things that truly made up her true self … But Mrs. Sweet … did not know of the ways in which Mr. Sweet’s imagination, his Now and his Then, his ways of seeing the present, the past and the future, colored the ways in which he saw her.”
Mrs. Sweet, like her creator, hails from the Caribbean and bears the first name Jamaica – facts that Mr. Sweet explains, disparagingly, by claiming that his tall, striking wife arrived in the U.S. “by banana boat.” Mrs. Sweet – she of the “thick, chaotic lips” and eyes “the color of barrels of molasses” – wants us to know that she is the party scorned here, and “See Now Then” is her revenge. Or perhaps her musings are the best manner she has for putting the man and the marriage behind her.
Either way, “See Now Then” is – by turns – lovely, even lilting, difficult, and condemning of Mr. Sweet. The good news is that everything works – Kincaid’s style, story and startling way of telling a tale of the cosmos in terms of domesticity. That this is a tragedy of Greek scale in Mrs. Sweet’s eyes is echoed in her choice of names for her children, a daughter and a son, Persephone and Hercules, and her use of the word monodist for her husband’s musical compositions, of Myrmidons for their son Hercules’ toy soldiers.
She speaks of the birth of her son, Hercules:
“As Mrs. Sweet was standing over him, admiring his baby form, his young tenderness, and seeing in his glorious features outstanding attributes, she wept, the tears flowing uncontrollably and in such volume, that she had to immediately gather them up and place them outside, making a pond, in which frogs, trout and the like would live and lay their eggs …”
Persephone, apparently her father’s favorite, is “his close companion and kept hidden from Mrs. Sweet among his musical notes.”
Persephone appears less frequently than Hercules in “See Now Then” – but Mrs. Sweet is in awe of her throughout the book, calling Persephone “her first great love, the everlasting, deeply harmonious, beautiful Persephone.”
That Mr. Sweet is a composer, as is Kincaid’s former husband, and that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet have a daughter and a son, as Kincaid and Shawn do, is brought home countless times, sometimes suggesting to us that Mr. Sweet may well have left because Mrs. Sweet can be, well, too much.
Like Kincaid, whose love of gardening is a hallmark of her work, Mrs. Sweet has a garden so lush that Mr. Sweet takes perverse delight when “now, at this moment, this now, what happiness, for the deer ate her tulips just as they were all about to open in a glorious bloom …”
The feeling is the same toward the sometimes smothering way in which Mrs. Sweet produces meal after meal from scratch, many of her productions involving complicated French dishes – causing her daughter to cry out for McDonald’s.
Kincaid, therefore, does not spare herself – a gift that also keeps her from being blind to the humor in Mrs. Sweet’s situation. (Mr. Sweet “loved only nocturnes,” his masterpiece being a piece titled “This Marriage Is Dead.”)
There is courage and brilliance here, and an unusual way of going about it.
We hurt for Mrs. Sweet, we pull for her, we identify with her passion for her children while we somewhat understand Mr. Sweet – and fairly jump for joy when Mrs. Sweet notes that, “Death has no Then and Now.”
See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 183 pages, $23
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.