See Now Then: A Woman Scorned

My book review of Jamaica Kincaid’s “See Now Then” (2013)

Jamaica Kincaid is an angry black woman. At least that’s the impression readers may have when they dive head first into See Now Then, her first novel in 10 years.

Although Kincaid denies it, See Now Then appears to be loosely based on her life and painful divorce from her husband, the composer Allen Shawn, who she divorced in 2001 after 25 years together. They have two children, Harold and Annie. Shawn is now married to Yoshiko Sato, a pianist.

As such, See Now Then falls into the “scorned woman” genre that Nora Ephron made popular with Heartburn (1983), her loosely autobiographical novel based on her failed marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. (Spoiler alert, Bernstein had an affair while Ephron was pregnant with their second child.)

Kincaid’s novel centers on the Sweet family who reside in a pleasant New England village, living not-so-pleasant lives: Mrs. Sweet is a middle-aged black woman and a writer; Mr. Sweet is a smallish, arrogant composer; and they have two children, the energetic Heracles and the beautiful Persephone.

Autobiographical or not, See Now Then is cathartic at the very least.

Kincaid weaves in emotional scars, resentment, and hurt into a ‘stream of consciousness’ prose, which is often confusing to follow. The Carribean-born novelist runs sentences into each other as if she is typing her thoughts directly onto the page. Editing be damned.

But what may be confusing for some may be easily digested by the heartbroken women and scorned lovers who belong to the same “men are cads” club as Kincaid. Men, beware, there is no hope for your kind in the scorned woman genre.

Like Ephron, Kincaid holds nothing back. Race and class differences play a role in the breakdown of the Sweets’ marriage. Mr. Sweet often refers to his wife’s “banana boat” upbringing in comparison to his privileged, urban childhood – not unlike Kincaid and Shawn’s own backgrounds. Kincaid was born in Antigua while Shawn grew up rubbing elbows with New York’s literati as the son of legendary New Yorker editor, William Shawn.

See Now Then does not have a plot, for which Kincaid refuses to apologize. Rather than writing a linear story line, Kincaid depicts the emotional disintegration of a family of characters where there is no Hollywood-like beginning or ending.

Love, hate, resentment, naivety exist and fester, as it would after 20 years of a failed marriage. Time is the only discernible plot. Things continue to fall apart with every glance from, every irritable habit witnessed, and every regret felt by Mr. Sweet, a selfish, smallish man who directs his hatred for the life he did not have towards his wife.

…But Mr. Sweet was in his studio above the garage, where he always liked to be, it was not a funeral parlor, it’s only that he was in mourning and conducting a funeral for his life, the one he never led, and Mrs. Sweet’s calling him interrupted this mourning, she was always interrupting , his life or his death, she was always interrupting.” (p.45)

This is not a novel where a louse of a husband will see his flawed ways. Kincaid has no time for that; this is her side of the story. And so, the louse remains a louse.

But what can readers make of Mrs. Sweet, who seems to be as naive as her husband is selfish:

How the dear Mrs. Sweet loved Mr. Sweet and so too she loved all that he produced, fugues, concertos, choral pieces, suites, and variations.” (p.51)

Mrs. Sweet is either blind to her failed marriage or, like many desperate spouses, initially chooses to ignore her husband’s detachment so she can to keep her family – and her sole identity – from falling apart.

It’s heartbreaking, emotionally exhausting, and cleverly captures the one-sided devastation of a broken relationship. Ten years after her divorce, Kincaid will be celebrated by deceived women who are able to work through the novel’s stream of consciousness narrative and seek comfort in the kind of timeless vengeance they will be unable to execute against their no-good husbands.

The Washington Post‘s Marie Arana says it best in her summary of “See Now Then”:

Kincaid is not easy reading. Not much that is worthwhile in literature is. But she is fierce and true. Certainly, that is so of “See Now Then.” After 10 years of inexplicable fictional silence, she comes forth with a mighty roar.

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