Jamaica Kincaid's mesmerizing new novel, "See Now Then," can be read by simply absorbing what's on the page. That is how I read the first two-thirds of the book, Kincaid's first novel in a decade, telling the story of a marriage whose toxicity is killing both partners.

Or it can be read as a fable about a doomed family, an effect heightened by the protagonists, Mr. and Mrs. Sweet and their two children, Heracles and Persephone (whose names are borrowed from Greek mythology).

Kincaid has crafted a series of stream-of-consciousness reveries in which all four characters reflect on their lives in a New England town, their garden and the streets, forest and mountains beyond.

The author gives us countless exquisitely crafted, but free-roaming, sentences describing the beauty to be found in even a loveless marriage. As Mrs. Sweet looks down on the infant Heracles in her arms, Kincaid writes: "oh his mouth was as wide as the sun's, that very sun that rises up above the universal horizon and then covers the sky for a while, a while being a day, and to witness this event the sun rising up from the horizon and covering the expanse of the sky for the time it does, is a very definition of being alive."

Such scenes pulse with so much life that one feels as if they could be read in any order, with each random morsel generating joy over Kincaid's wondrous, soaring, brave prose.


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Consider the special delight in Mrs. Sweet's visions of Heracles: The boy plays with "Myrmidon" soldiers he's collected from Happy Meals; while in the womb the imprint of his heel can be seen under the skin of Mrs. Sweet's belly; and finally he becomes "a young black man, whatever that might be, and even now, whatever that might be is not certain."

But farther into the book, the domestic complications begin to lose their magical, allegorical qualities and feel more like comments on the nastiness of a real-life marriage.

I started reading "See Now Then" with little knowledge about Kincaid's personal life. But after 130 pages, I went to the Internet and -- spoiler alert! -- discovered that the author was married for many years to a composer of classical music -- just like the fictional Mrs. Sweet. Kincaid and her now ex-husband lived in a New England town with their two children, a son and a daughter. And like Kincaid, Mrs. Sweet is a writer born in the Caribbean nation of Antigua. Mrs. Sweet is also working on a book called "See Now Then."

Viewed through the lens of basic facts about Kincaid's life, "See Now Then" offers quite a different experience. As fictional characters, the Sweets live in the protective bubble of a work of art: We are moved by their experiences but don't feel the bitterness that comes from watching real people hurt themselves. Reading the novel, however, as a semi-autobiographical account of a real marriage can feel uncomfortably voyeuristic.

What is one to make of the scene where Kincaid imagines Mr. Sweet wanting to drop his newborn son, Heracles, and watch him "fall to the ground, his body intact except for his head, his brains scattered all over the floor of the delivery room"?

If the book really is a thinly veiled memoir, that suggests Kincaid chose the name Persephone (a Greek goddess kidnapped by the king of the underworld) for the Sweets' daughter to express a very personal, private hurt.

What is beyond dispute is that "See Now Then" can be celebrated for its linguistic feats and artistic vision, but one will surely come away hoping that it represents art, not life.

Farrar, Straus
and Giroux

$24, 192 pages