From the very first, we know that Mr. Sweet has come to feel nothing so much as hatred for Mrs. Sweet. As he sees it, he has consorted with a “beast,” produced a monster for a son, and he is consumed by dreams of how to dispose of them. Husband and wife, together with two hapless offspring, Heracles and Persephone, live by the Paran River in the pristine town of Bennington, Vt., in a house once inhabited (fittingly) by one of the great practitioners of the classic American horror story, Shirley Jackson.
So it is that we plunge headlong into a tale of connubial woe, lurching our way from a halcyon Then to a thoroughly doomed Now, learning with every page how it was that two such miserably matched human beings came together in the first place. Mr. Sweet — whose parents dine at the Plaza Hotel, rely on “supers” to change their lightbulbs, and sport camel-hair coats and French perfume — seems the very antithesis of Mrs. Sweet: a backwater island girl who came to America from Dominica on a “banana boat,” whose mother spurned her for a stevedore lover, who earns nothing so much as pity in her northern home. Marriage is not in the offing until, in their circle of young friends in heterogenous New York, the subject of her lapsed visa arises, they learn she will have to go home, and an idea comes up: “One of us will have to marry Jamaica.”
That the matron’s first name is Jamaica will come as a jolt to anyone who hasn’t read Kincaid’s work before. The rest of us will have understood by now that we’re on highly personal terrain. Like Kincaid’s other accomplished novels — “At the Bottom of the River,” “Annie John,” “Lucy” and “The Autobiography of My Mother” — this is a story liberally sprinkled with real life.
Bennington is where Kincaid raised her two very real children; Manhattan is where her real husband grew up; and indeed Kincaid’s mother, like Mrs. Sweet’s, married a stevedore on an island in the West Indies. Nor is that the summa of autobiographical details: Kincaid’s ex-husband is Allen Shawn, a composer of classical music; like Mr. Sweet, he is small, 5 foot 2; their children are four years apart in age; Kincaid’s birthday is May 25, the same as her protagonist’s. Mr. Shawn, like Mr. Sweet, left his wife for a younger woman. More: Mrs. Sweet, like Ms. Kincaid, is a gardener. Like her creator, she slips off to the privacy of a room to write endlessly about her mother. Like her, she turns out to be far more successful and better known than her husband. Like her, she is obsessed with rodents, haunted by loss, inclined to tell awful truths.