See Now Then
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 183 pages, $26.50
The unravelling of a marriage is hardly a rare topic in contemporary fiction, but the unravelling of a marriage as described by Jamaica Kincaid is indeed a unique literary journey. That journey is bound up in the pages of Kincaid's baffling, beautiful and eccentric new novel.
Kincaid, born and raised in Antigua, West Indies, launched her writing career at The New Yorker, shortly after moving to the United States as a 17-year-old in 1966. Since then she has authored 23 books of fiction and non-fiction, many of them unconventional in style and substance and most of them autobiographical in nature.
See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, relies on all three of these familiar elements.
The couple at the centre of the narrative is the mismatched and unhappily wed Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. They live with their two children in present day Bennington, Vt., in the house that once belonged to the author Shirley Jackson. In real life, Kincaid and Jackson, author of the celebrated 1948 short story The Lottery, both lived in Bennington.
Mr. Sweet is a composer, and a learned and refined man from a good family. Mrs. Sweet is a newcomer to the country with an old-country mentality. The couple married shortly after Mrs. Sweet arrived in the U.S. off a banana boat, alone and lonely.
"[T]he rush on my part to belong to someone who knew the world in ways that were unknown to me, being and not being, was how I came to marry your father," she explains to her children.
Back then, Mr. Sweet was indeed enamoured of his wife, but as he becomes increasingly unhappy with his lot in life, he becomes increasingly impatient with and embarrassed by her.
Her voice, he finds, was "like an unwanted alarm clock... the red light, irritating and interrupting everything that was pleasant."
Longing for the big city life he left behind at her urging, and despondent about a lack of success and recognition for his art, he becomes obsessed with turning their daughter Persephone into an accomplished musician.
Mrs. Sweet, for her part, is infatuated with their son Heracles, and more concerned about gratifying his every wish and desire. Often feeling unloved and unappreciated, she nonetheless dedicates her days to looking after her family.
Kincaid draws readers into the couple's deepest thoughts and feelings as they ponder, as the novel's title suggests, their past, present and future. In this way, the narrative is reminiscent of Canadian Anakana Schofield's 2012 novel Malarky, a very different story about mismatched spouses, unhappiness and longing that focuses heavily on the inner dialogue of its characters. That one too was lyrically written, but too peculiar in style to enjoy wide appeal.
Kincaid certainly makes the disappointment, love, envy and rancour that Mr. and Mrs. Sweet feel for themselves, their children and each other palpable and poignant. But it is not enough.
Ultimately, this novel does not offer readers anyone or anything to really cling to. There is no one character that is unforgettable, no dialogue that stuns with its authenticity, and not enough back story to put the characters, their dreams and disappointments into perspective.
Winnipeg writer Sharon Chisvin is the author of The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter.