Man marries. Woman grows old and fat. Man throws her over for a prettier version. It’s a familiar story. Yet, in Jamaica Kincaid’s voice, the scorned woman’s fury becomes a spellbinding tale, as lyrical as “Paradise Lost,” as resonant as a Greek epic. This is hell like none other. You descend it circle by circle, and, word by word, you yield to the storyteller’s art.
“See Now Then” is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. The fictional Mrs. Sweet — like the author, as it happens — is a novelist from the West Indies, a descendant of African slaves, a woman whose skin is a “beautiful brown, a brown that glistened and shone, a brown so unique to her, no other Mrs. Sweet could ever be brown in that way, so glistening, so shiny, so glowing.” The husband, on the other hand, is Winter white, Manhattan-born and -bred, a harpist-composer, a man who “wept as he played, pouring all of his feelings of despair into that music, imagining that his life, his precious life was being spent with that dreadful woman, his wife. . . . He was such a small man, sometimes people mistook him for a rodent, he scurried around so.”
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.
So much for the subjects at hand, reality’s grist for a writer’s mill. Certainly, it is not the first time a novelist has drawn hungrily from the well of experience. As with Mrs. Sweet’s exuberant son, Heracles, we might even say that Kincaid has drunk from family stories “with a ferociousness only possible in a fable . . .drank from them as if the future of some great but not-yet-known civilization depended on this act . . . drank as if he knew there was a Then and a Now, and a Now from which a Then could would come, time being completely beyond human understanding.”
As must be obvious by now, it is in Kincaid’s extraordinarily elegiac style, peppered with flashes of rage, that we see the artist at work. “See Now Then” is a novel written in high dudgeon. You are warned of this from the very start: The portrait she gives us of our heroine is bleak, unremitting. “Her legs were too long, her torso too short; her nostrils flatted out like a deflated tent and came to rest on her wide fat cheeks; her ears appeared just where ears should be but then disappeared unexpectedly and if an account of them had to be made for evidence of any kind, memory of ears known in one way or another would have to be brought forth; her lips were like a child’s drawing of the earth before creation, a symbol of chaos, the thing not yet knowing its true form.” In other words, Mrs. Sweet was an aging black female. The last thing her white, effete husband expected her to become.
As Mr. Sweet comes to tell his children: “I don’t love your mother, you know, we were always so incompatible. . . . She snores horribly; she smells of the past. . . . She is very naive, she is very primitive, she is very amusing, she is wonderful when you are trying to be brave, but when you are with her and you face your limitations, she’s a joke, she’s an embarrassment.”
Much of what we have come to expect from Kincaid is in evidence in those few words: her rage against the Colonial spirit, a spirit that lives on in hierarchies based on skin color; her conviction that a separate world history can be told by women; her faith that the most important events we experience are hidden in small acts, seemingly inconsequential moments that define our humanity.
Kincaid is not easy reading. Not much that is worthwhile in literature is. But she is fierce and true. Certainly, that is so of “See Now Then.” After 10 years of inexplicable fictional silence, she comes forth with a mighty roar.
Arana is a former editor in chief of Book World. Author of “American Chica,” “Cellophane,” and the forthcoming biography “Bolivar,” she is a writer at large for The Washington Post and a senior adviser to the Library of Congress.
SEE NOW THEN
By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar Straus Giroux. 192 pp. $24