Toxic emotions suffuse “See Now Then,” Jamaica Kincaid’s bitter, autobiographical, end-of-marriage novel. In sometimes circuitous language, she stretches a fraying marriage across the loom of time and picks it apart, stitch by stitch, obsessively rethinking how the relationship began, how and when it turned hateful.
Mrs. Smart and Mr. Smart, a composer on a college faculty, live with their children — “the beautiful Persephone” (whom he adores) and “the young Heracles” (whom she adores) — in the Shirley Jackson house in a small New England town obviously modeled on Bennington, Vt. Kincaid sketches the dissonance between them repeatedly. He was raised in doorman buildings in Manhattan, with dinners at the Plaza Hotel, a mother who wore French perfume, and a father who had phobias and two households. She was raised fatherless in Antigua. Their marriage served, in part, to protect her from deportation.
As Kincaid opens the book, Mrs. Sweet is unmindful of the “rage and hatred and utter disdain that her beloved Mr. Sweet nurtured in his small breast for her.” She also is blind to the fact he is drawn to his female students.
Mr. Smart hates the place where they live. “[S]he dragged me here that stupid bitch who arrived on a banana boat and my mother warned me against marrying her,” he fumes. Mrs. Smart sees the mountain village as a refuge from the “tormented landscape that made up Mrs. Sweet’s fifty-two-year-old inner life.” In a small room next to the kitchen she writes about her Caribbean childhood and her fraught connection to her mother. In that room, Kincaid writes, “she came alive in all her tenses, then, now, and then again.” In her writings, Mrs. Smart describes a momentous event: Her mother teaches her to read, then tells her to lie about her age, saying she is five, not three and a half, so she can go to school. This is the beginning of her dual vision of life as simultaneously “then” and “now.” Kincaid circles this paradox of time, repeating “See Now Then “ like an incantation.
Mrs. Smart might be considered the surprisingly dutiful, grown-up woman following the mother’s instructions in “Girl,” Kincaid’s iconic first story, published in The New Yorker in 1978. (At the time the magazine was edited by William Shawn, whose son Allen, a composer, she married in 1979; the two were divorced in 2002.) Kincaid is meticulous in describing Mrs. Smart’s attention to her domestic chores — gardening, preparing elaborate meals, knitting, mending socks, doing the laundry, caring for the children, and depositing checks that arrive to cover their overdue bills. Mr. Smart, meanwhile, locks himself into a study over the garage and composes a fugue for 100 lyres and a nocturne he calls “This Marriage Is Dead.”
Kincaid has an acute sense of the pain one unhappy spouse can inflict upon the other. Mr. Smart dramatically lists the tulips Mrs. Smart had planted and anticipated all winter — Queen of the Night, Holland Queen, Black Parrot, her favorite, Mrs. John T. Scheepers, dozens of others — and gloats to their children, “what happiness, for the deer ate her tulips just as they were all about to open in a glorious bloom.” The children burst into applause.
At another point he says she looks like Charles Laughton. Ouch.
And, in a moment that leaves a lasting wound on their son, he tells Heracles, “I don’t love your mother anymore, I love another woman . . . we were always so incompatible.” Using an unmistakable literary reference to the Creole “madwoman in the attic” in “Jane Eyre,’’ he continues, “she is strange and should live in the attic of a house that burns down, though I don’t want her to be in it when that happens, but if she was in it when the house burned down, I wouldn’t be surprised, she is that kind of person.”
Mrs. Smart is diminished over time, shrinking as she absorbs emotional blows from her husband and growing children, and faces abandonment. Still, her “then” and her “now” continue to coexist: “So inevitable are the series of events seen over your shoulder as you glance back from the series of events that stand before you, and in your own mind you can see the series of events that are to come, that are arrayed before you, and they appear as if they are in the rearview mirror but only in reverse,” Kincaid writes.
The characters central to Kincaid’s earlier novels — Lucy, Annie Paul, and Xuela, the protagonist of “The Autobiography of My Mother” — were filled with an energizing, rebellious, life-giving spirit. By the end of this intense, opaque, tormented novel, her Mrs. Sweet seems defeated, left to think to herself, “The world is vicious. ”Jane Ciabattari, who has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, NPR.org,The Daily Beast, and others, is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.