See Now Then a novel by Jamaica Kincaid begins with those three words as Mrs Sweet informs us in very long sentences that stretch from the top of a page where they begin to the end where they end. Faulkner type sentences. Mrs Sweet is catching us up on the then, dead folk, funerals, and former homeowners, Then is Now. She stares out the window from the house that Shirley Jackson lived in to the mountains and to the rivers and to the man made lake, to the geography of the place Now, while thinking of Then. Mr Sweet a musician hates her, his son, this life in the country. He is a creature of the city and when he married her, fresh off the banana boat, his mother warned him against it. He regrets what happened Then because it has badly impacted Now.
The writing style is poetic. The long sentences with much punctuation are lines of poetry presented as prose. So much word, phase repetition. In addition this novel is like a silent movie. We are reading thoughts, not hearing dialogue and yet can’t hear Mr Sweet’s music. And then there is the constant back and forth between Then and Now. ‘See’ is a popular verb and an important word in the novel.
This is a tale of Mrs Sweet, whom Mr Sweet hates as we see page after page, though she loves him madly, and madly may be the right word as she has learned early in life to buck up, move on, make Now Then only to have a new Now. But Then is always Now tragically for her. We know they have two children, the older daughter Persephone, whom we never see and rarely hear about, is safely hidden away, while we are constantly reminded of Heracles, the younger son and apple of Mrs Sweet’s eye and hated by Mr Sweet. This hate could wear the reader down if it weren’t for the love Mrs Sweet shows and displays and of course how beautifully Kincaid writes in her poetic prose.
The trick is to See Then Now as things don’t change that way as they do in the Now which Mrs Sweet tries to avoid as she looks out the window at a scene Now was Then and will always be. This is a hard woman to love.