Look Back in Anger
See Now Then:
by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$23.00 List Price
The title of Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then is one variation on the modus operandi of any novelist who takes up the passage of familial time as subject matter. (À la recherche du temps perdu could be translated as See Then Now.) The intensity of the imperative title is crucial (think of Francisco Goldman’s wrenching Say Her Name, memorializing his young wife, killed in a swimming accident) but also a little misleading, because this is not a novel that wants to illuminate the past for its own sake. Indeed, quite the opposite: In See Now Then memories appear and reappear with a hypnotic, furious regularity, and the novel exhausts itself trying to control them—as if stanching a hemorrhage, or cauterizing a wound.
It’s probably best to say right away that the family depicted in See Now Then is Kincaid’s own family: her former husband, Allen Shawn—a composer and professor at Bennington College, and son of the New Yorker editor William Shawn—and their two (now adult) children. The resemblance isn’t just a matter of biographical details in the public record: See Now Then represents Mr. Sweet, the father of the family, as the agoraphobic, intensely limited, and solitary man Shawn has described himself to be in his own memoirs. It refers to Mrs. Sweet as the author of novels about the Caribbean including Mr. Potter (the title of Kincaid’s own 2002 novel), and describes her virtuosic gardening and her conversion to Judaism—that is, it represents Kincaid exactly as the public figure she has become over four decades of writing.
All of this puts Kincaid’s devoted readers in an