Breathe. In this autobiographical memoir of a novel that is really a meditation on marriage and motherhood and otherness and powerlessness — categories can be so limiting — Jamaica Kincaid writes in long rambling Faulknerian sentences that leave the page, play a trick on our minds, circle several dimensions, loot the author’s own life, and return with a certain fierce if sometimes comic emphasis. Reading the book for the audio CD will require the lungs of an Olympian swimmer. Reading it silently to ourselves is dizzying.
See the Sweet family, now and then, as they move through time and space like matryoshka dolls, growing outer shells while retaining their inner selves. Mr. Sweet is a musician; Mrs. Sweet a writer, gardener and mother. Heracles is the son given to play quiet combat games with his toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, and Persephone is the daughter with her own doomed, mythic name.
The Sweets live in the Shirley Jackson house in Vermont, and if See Now Then were a horror movie, we’d hear an organ, Jackson being the mid-century author best known for stories of women and children to whom terrible things happen.
After a childhood in a gated townhome in Manhattan, Mr. Sweet — who “had the stature of a prince from the Tudor era” — is out of his element in an idyllic town in Vermont. His wife can’t carry a tune, has a broad nose and broad, flat feet as befits someone whom Mr. Sweet regards as “off a banana boat.” She enjoys their children’s dismantling of the safety gates erected to separate them from household poisons. The same poisons bleach the warm brown hands of Mrs. Sweet as she, like her husband, tries to acclimate to this foreign but domestic environment.
Along with mythic allusions, Kincaid makes many geologic references. Erosion is the word that comes to mind. Even domestic arrangements marked by propinquity (the boy next door) are eroded by time. See now then. Time has the power of a river sculpting through a canyon. The couple in the wedding photos change as surely as analog photos themselves are replaced by Instagrams. Balances shift. Geopolitics sets in, and not entirely in the Henry Kissinger sense. Otherwise, why would we take so many pictures of the evanescent with our omnipresent smartphones?
And in the Sweet family, in the ominous Shirley Jackson house, where even in his separate studio Mr. Sweet can’t hear the music he is composing, or trying to compose, because of the whir and whoosh of the washer and dryer, Persephone and Heracles are born: powerless.
See now then. Ourselves as children, the smallest matryoshka doll rattling around in adult form, the wounded parts of us still flawed as we try to make whole and warm and comforting the lives of our children.
Kincaid is on to something here. We all know it or sense it, but never has it been expressed like this. We want our partner-love imperishable, our children’s lives unblemished, but see now then.
This book is not a novel, whatever Kincaid’s publisher calls it. It is not a memoir or an autobiography. It is much more than an extended essay on the way time, power and powerlessness work on the clobbered-together family, that tiniest and most vulnerable human unit. And it is a question. Are any of our deeply nurtured hopes possible, given time’s glacial power to distort and uproot? And if not, what do we do, short of uprooting each other?
Full disclosure: I almost always have an extra copy of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place on hand, in case I have to send it to somebody. Her anger is fierce, her voice is true.
Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami.