See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel, her first work of fiction since Mr. Potter in 2002, is a startling and unusual piece of writing. This story about the dissolution of a marriage is more of a poem than a novel, a 180-page stream-of-consciousness narrative that loops back and forth in time. The book has the cadences of poetry but the brittleness of Philip Roth at his angriest. See Now Then is the loveliest nasty novel I have ever read.

seenowthenMr. Sweet is a composer of difficult works of modern music. A Manhattan native, Mr. Sweet now lives in rural Vermont with his wife, Mrs. Sweet—who, like Kincaid, is a writer from the Caribbean—and their two children, Persephone and Heracles. Mr. Sweet adores his daughter, Persephone, so much so that he keeps the young child with him in his studio as inspiration while he composes pieces such as a nocturne entitled, “This Marriage is Dead.”

But he hates just about everybody else. He complains that the few Vermonters who attend his piano recitals smell like wood-burning stoves and know nothing of his beloved Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. From the moment his young son, Heracles, is born, Mr. Sweet is convinced that the boy has eyes that “would never see and so lead to an understanding of Beethoven’s concertos and Mozart and Bach”, a prognosis that is confirmed, sort of, when they later discover that Heracles “could not carry a tune and had been asked by his piano teacher not to attend class anymore”.

Most of Mr. Sweet’s wrath is reserved for Mrs. Sweet. He resents his life in Vermont and feels that Mrs. Sweet has kept him from becoming a celebrated talent. He tells her that she is starting to look like Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty—an especially hurtful comment, as the Bounty reminds Mrs. Sweet of the ships that used to carry breadfruit, a staple of her diet, to the Caribbean when she was young. Relations between them degenerate to the point that Mr. Sweet fantasizes about strangling his wife with her nightgown.

With her constant use of repetition—she frequently refers to the Shirley Jackson house the Sweets live in, for example—Kincaid creates a hypnotic mood that is effective at times and tiring at others. Much of the writing is beautiful, but the book suffers from its lopsided portrait of the two spouses. Mr. Sweet is nasty throughout, whereas Mrs. Sweet is a saint by comparison. Whether this story parallels the real-life divorce between Kincaid and the composer Allen Shawn is beside the point. It’s hard to believe that one partner in the crumbling marriage depicted here could be wholly culpable while the other is blameless. Greater nuance would have made this a stronger book. But if you appreciate novels that dispense with traditional narrative techniques and contain deeply poetic writing, you will find a lot to enjoy in See Now Then.

My full review appears on


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