See Now Then

By Jamaica Kincaid

Macmillan Audio | 2013 | 5.5 hours 5CDs | $29.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

jamacia kincaid

See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in ten years, is a thought-provoking exploration of time and a family, the Sweet’s journey through it. Mr. Sweet is a composer and teacher from a wealthy family, and his wife is a Caribbean woman off a banana boat. They live in a small New England town with their children, Persephone and Heracles.

The Sweets have built up their relationship using many aspects of conventional love, including hate, “hatred being the direct opposite and so being its most like form.” Kincaid takes time seeing the world (its “thens”, its “nows”, and its “now thens” that the future will become) through each of the family members’ points-of-view. The intertwining and interlocking of relationships and emotions brings realism to the circular and disjointed telling of the Sweets’ life story.

Jamaica Kincaid, in See Now Then, portrays life as a series of incidents, occasions, interactions, emotions, realizations and relationships. Each character keeps his or her secrets and thinks them truly secret. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet shared something once, but have grown to accept a certain status quo.

In the “now”, they explore and reflect on the “then” to unravel how they came to be where they are and where life will lead them. This reflecting reveals what was always known, just misunderstood, as the story completes its circle concluding with Mrs. Sweet standing in the same place she starts the novel.

Kincaid writes in a poetic fashion, making use of repetition and verse, reminiscent of Homer (a parallel that did not escape the author), and her soothing Caribbean accent gives this audio book an appropriately rhythmic and authentic feel. Nonlinear storytelling challenges the listener to reach for meaning and relevance, when sometimes there is apparently none, but trust placed in Kincaid is rewarded.  The emotional material strikes home for anyone in or interested in marriage or a family of his or her own.

Kincaid portrays a family struggle centered on self-identity vs. the family, how what is necessary and fulfilling for one member might drive a spike in a relationship with another. The sociological experiment that is the family unit is put to the test with two realistically well-meant, yet self-serving parents. See Now Then holds a warning, a truth, of the hardships and sacrifice entailed in relationships and the growth of a family.

There are times when audio books (especially when read by the author) seem inferior to reading them. See Now Then is not one of those books. Not to discount reading the words and the skill and fashion she uses in manipulating them, but this audio version is read just as the author intended: in her tone, at the proper pace, and with the proper inflection.

The story is a beautiful and heart-wrenching account of a family falling to pieces as it continues to stay together, and Jamaica Kincaid succeeds in presenting it in an interesting and compelling way.

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