Composer Mr. Sweet is angry. As he strikes a chord on his Steinway, “no one could hear him but he could hear the sound of the washing machine washing the clothes of his infernal family and in that entity he did not include himself.”
An unhappy household in New England is the setting for “See Now Then,” Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in 10 years. Part domestic meditation, part philosophical examination, Kincaid’s work explores the collapse of a marriage from various family members’ points of view.
The majority of the book can, unfortunately, be read as a rant against Mr. Sweet. Comparisons to Kincaid’s own situation (her composer husband of 25 years left her for a much younger woman) are easy to make. While Mrs. Sweet “was unwavering, her devotion was without question, her love had no limits” there is nothing positive about Mr. Sweet, who fantasizes about killing his family and laments about how much he “hates” his wife: “She snores horribly; she smells of the past, for she is growing old and so am I … but young women like me and I do not like old women … she is very naive, she is very primitive.”
However when Mr. Sweet finally asks his wife for a divorce (arguably the only plot point in the text), the language opens up and there are some beautiful, engaging passages: “She sat in that unknowingness, that space invisible to the naked eye, and tried to sort out how she came to be herself … unraveling various parts of the garment that had been her own life.”
This shift in language could be part of an extended metaphor — Mrs. Sweet isn’t truly free until she breaks from her husband — but keeping this shift until the final chapter is terribly unsatisfying. Instead of ending on a note of hope for things to come in Mrs. Sweet’s new life, we are left wondering: what could have been?