A recursive and beguiling tale of a collapsing marriage by the veteran Kincaid (The Autobiography of My Mother, 1996, etc.).
Early in this slim, challenging novel, Kincaid drops a reference to Gertrude Stein, whose repetitive rhythmic prose is a clear inspiration (“it was her presence in his life that kept him from being who he really was, who he really was, who he really was”). The plot centers on Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, a couple whose marriage is shot through with passivity and resentment, though the source of the tension is never quite explicit. To be sure, Mr. Sweet is a New York-bred pianist and composer who hates living in Vermont. (His opus-in-progress is called This Marriage Is Dead.) But Kincaid represents the struggle as something more than a typical case of domestic dysfunction. The family lives in the home of novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson, who famously produced her modern gothic tales while raising four children, and Mrs. Sweet similarly labors to balance creativity and domesticity. Their two children are named Persephone and Heracles, and the story sometimes shifts into a broad allegorical mode that, like those names, echoes Greek mythology. (In one scene, Heracles pulls off his father’s testicles and throws them all the way to the Atlantic.) In some ways, this book is a tribute to modernism, in its surrealism, in its Stein-ian prose and in the way Kincaid cannily merges past and present events to evoke mood; what cubist painters did with point of view, she does with past and present tense to suggest a persistent melancholy in the Sweet home.
It’s not a total success: Without the tether of a firm plot, all the time-folding makes the narrative feel static, an artful set of complaints. Yet Kincaid’s audaciousness is winning. She’s taken some much-needed whacks at the conventional domestic novel.