In “See Now Then,” Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in 10 years, her protagonist, Mrs. Sweet, spends her days lost in contemplation, sorting dreams and sifting memories: “A time for reflection, for remembering the past, that way of seeing Then Now.” Her marriage is in crisis, rendering her future uncertain, but still she would rather retrace the course of her life and the less complicated details of her present. It is thus a novel of thought rather than action, but Kincaid gives Mrs. Sweet more than enough to mull over and the reader plenty to chew on.
At first glance, all seems well with the Sweet family. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet and their two children, Heracles and Persephone, live in a small New England village in a house where Shirley Jackson once lived. Kincaid paints a perfect idyll: We learn that Mrs. Sweet, like Kincaid herself, “loved gardens”; mountains and lakes surround them; the children are beautiful, the parents well-respected in the community. But the serenity is shattered when Mrs. Sweet muses on how “her husband, the dear Mr. Sweet, hated her very much. He so often wished her dead.”
So runs one of many deliciously acerbic lines. Soon it is Mr. Sweet who is ruminating, labeling his wife “beastly,” “benighted” and “not long off the banana boat.” He is a pianist who has written a nocturne called “This Marriage Is Dead” and a song about beheading his son. Once his warped mind-set is established, we flit back into Mrs. Sweet’s head and rejoin a succession of vivid flashbacks colliding with real-time observations.
Mrs. Sweet is in many respects a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway. Her stream of consciousness steers the novel — indeed, is the novel — although at times it is more a torrent of unending sentences and page-long paragraphs. In less skilled hands we might tire of her, and wish she would keep her thoughts to herself. But Kincaid ensures each outpouring is arresting and laced with either heartfelt emotion or the blackest of comedy. And while juxtaposing ancient mythology with humdrum reality is no first for fiction (think of that other modernist work, “Ulysses”), there is fun to be had in noting Kincaid’s many references — from Heracles playing with his Happy Meal Myrmidions to Mr. Sweet composing a concerto for the Troy Orchestra.
In “My Brother” (1997), a grief-stricken Kincaid tried in vain to move on after her sibling’s death: “And what now, and so, yes, what now. What now!” In “See Now Then,” Mrs. Sweet is more composed but her thoughts are just as jumbled and urgent, particularly concerning “Now.” This is a mesmerizing study of time and perception, and cleverly conveyed by a character preoccupied with “the way a life unfurls.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.