Jamaica Kincaid is one of the most distinct and revelatory American voices of the past 30 years, exploring not only her Caribbean childhood and background with lyrical honesty, in Annie John and The Autobiography of My Mother, but also her love of gardening, travel and flowers, in Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas. In her new novel, See Now Then, Kincaid tackles the feel of married life as only she can, moment by passing moment. The result is startling and peculiar, and therefore vintage Kincaid.
To all appearances, Mr. and Mrs. Sweet and their two children live an enviable life. Mrs. Sweet is “dear,” Mr. Sweet is “beloved,” and their children are “the beautiful Persephone” and “the young Heracles, whose deeds were known and they were great and he was famous for them, even before he was born.” Both of the Sweets pursue successful artistic careers, Mrs. Sweet as a writer and Mr. Sweet as a composer. They live in a most desirable dwelling, “the Shirley Jackson House,” which is evoked as a prestige literary item of real estate – the narrator does not pause to ask whether Shirley Jackson is haunting the Sweet family, but the reader comes to wonder whether the author of The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House and Raising Demons, who hated to leave home and died of heart failure in a chair one afternoon at the age of 48, might not be exerting some dark power.
Because one of the things that the narrator knows that Mrs. Sweet does not know, at least at the beginning, is “the rage and hatred and utter disdain that her beloved Mr. Sweet nurtured in his small breast for her.”
The actions of the Sweets seem innocent enough: Mrs. Sweet retires to her office next to the kitchen to write. Apparently, she likes privacy, but as a result, the children feel both abandoned and angry; she buys a white nightgown at a boutique, and Mr. Sweet reflects that its light fabric “could so easily be transformed into a noose, but how to get Mrs. Sweet to put her neck into it?” Mrs. Sweet has her resentments also: Almost as soon as Persephone is born, Mr. Sweet takes her over, so that she “often could not find her, even when she was sitting in front of her at a distance between a beautiful flower and a hand that will pluck it from the stem on which it is naturally growing.” Mr. Sweet has problems with fear and artistic torment, which he can neither share nor overcome. So far, so common.
As in her previous works, Kincaid is not primarily interested in the unfolding of events. Exactly how the Sweets came together and are now coming apart – who says what to whom and why, what the turning points are, how they arrive at Mr. Sweet’s not-unusual break-up confession – are subsumed in Kincaid’s narrative by the feel of these events as Mrs. Sweet turns them over in her mind.
Her job, she knows, is to discover their larger meaning, and she does so (possibly because she is living in the Shirley Jackson house; Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught a course at Bennington College called Myth, Ritual and Literature) by mythologizing them, Freud and Jung turned upside down, a troubled modern family going forth as Greek gods, not, perhaps because that is how they interpret themselves, but because that’s how grand and powerful their emotions seem to them.
There is no distancing here, no putting into perspective. As Mrs. Sweet’s mind works over her difficulties, “See Now Then, See Then Now, just to see anything at all, especially the present, was to always be inside the great world of disaster, catastrophe, and also joy and happiness, but these two latter were not accounted for in history, they were and are relegated to personal memory.” Kincaid, or at least Mrs. Sweet, seems to be saying family life, truly experienced, really is frightening, and let’s not forget it. It is a sentiment Shirley Jackson might have appreciated.
Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and other works of fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent novel is Private Life.
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