Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel, See Now Then, begins in a small house in New England inhabited by the Sweets—mother, father and two children—and at first appears as simple and as pleasing as a child’s drawing. But wait! The house once belonged to Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery” and other stories of the worst in human behavior. When Mr. Sweet lets slip how much he hates his wife, it becomes clear that this slim volume is no fairy tale, but rather a study of a family on the brink of dissolution.
Jamaica Kincaid's latest novel is a study of a family on the brink of dissolution.
Mr. Sweet is a frustrated composer with a rash of phobias; Mrs. Sweet is a gardener and a writer whose husband and children mock her exploits and resent her work. Mr. Sweet comes from an upper-class intellectual New York family; Mrs. Sweet hails from a Caribbean island and, as Mr. Sweet says disparagingly, came to the United States on a banana boat. Whatever brought them together has long soured, an attraction of opposites turning to a dislike born of familiarity. The children, boldly named Heracles and Persephone, are each aligned with the opposite-sex parent, but the connections between them weaken as their parents’ love turns to contempt.
Kincaid uses names and tales from Greek mythology to suggest a kind of universality, but the specifics of her characters imply that she is drawing from her own experience. In fact, at one point Mrs. Sweet quotes from her novel—recognizably one of Kincaid’s own. Kincaid has used her family as subjects in her fiction before—her biological parents in Autobiography of My Mother and Mr. Potter, to name two—but there is something more ruthless and unsentimental about See Now Then, perhaps because it is about a bond made by choice rather than biology.
Kincaid’s fiction relies on simplicity of vocabulary and looping, almost cyclical, rhythms, zooming in to read her characters’ thoughts and shifting back to encompass the politics of race and vicissitudes of history. Her lightly punctuated and repetitive, almost stream-of-consciousness style may not work for everyone, but her implication that a deep unknowingness lies beneath even our closest ties will strike close to the heart.