SEE NOW THEN, by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pp., $23.
'See Now Then," Jamaica Kincaid's first novel in 10 years, is about a family: Mr. and Mrs. Sweet and their children, Persephone and Heracles. The Sweets live in a small New England town in a house called the Shirley Jackson House. Mrs. Sweet, like the author, was born on a Caribbean island. She is a writer and a gardener. Mr. Sweet grew up in New York, the New York of the Plaza Hotel and Brooks Brothers and Carnegie Hall. His family demons: the Holocaust, Hiroshima. Hers: the Atlantic slave trade.
The novel moves forward in increments of rage. Mr. Sweet hates Mrs. Sweet, "who'd arrived on a banana boat." His mother warned him they had nothing in common. Mr. Sweet, a piano player, a now-underappreciated child prodigy, hates New England, misses New York City. He is a man "capable of understanding Wittgenstein and Einstein and any other name that ended in stein, Gertrude included, the intricacies of the universe itself ... how well he knew everything but he could not express himself." His resentment of Mrs. Sweet, the writer who can express herself, grows murderous. He hates the winters where she has dragged him. She is loud. He does not "want to come home to Aretha Franklin all the time" or "live in a place where the day ended at five in the afternoon in January."
Mrs. Sweet is a knitter. She loves her son, Heracles, with an all-consuming love. (Mr. Sweet hates his son and dreams of killing him.) As for the daughter, Persephone, Mr. Sweet takes her from her mother; Mrs. Sweet cannot "find" her, meaning understand or communicate with her.
Most readers feel protective of that little unit, the family. When it breaks, as it so often does and most certainly will in this story, we experience the tragedy. Mr. Sweet writes his nocturne, titled "This Marriage Is Dead," and performs it, to Mrs. Sweet's mortification, in the town's auditorium. Mrs. Sweet retreats to her room off the kitchen, where she writes; where her children can't find her. Mr. Sweet falls in love with a younger woman who admires and understands him. Heracles is broken in two by his father's departure.
Was it ever any different? Did Mr. Sweet, who so utterly resembles the absent-minded Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," ever truly love Mrs. Sweet, a modern-day Mrs. Ramsay -- the mother who struggles every day to save her family from destruction, or just unhappiness? No, probably not. The seeds of the future lay in the past, "for right now is always so incomplete, or so we feel, and that is a blessing, for it transforms then into what will come, all that will come, even though all that will come must contain right now and the unfathomable longing for the then...."