This review by Michiko Kakutani appeared in The New York Times.
The images in Edwidge Danticat’s haunting new novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” have the hard precision and richly saturated colors of a woodblock print or folk art painting: a great, Hokusai-like wave — “a wall of water” rising from “the depths of the ocean” like a “giant blue-green tongue” to devour fishermen and their flimsy boats; a group of girls singing and dancing on the beach, “six little brown and black angels skipping around fallen sea hearts and sand dollars”; a solitary woman “standing alone under a flame-colored weeping willow by the cemetery gate,” wearing “the same plain black dress” she had worn to the funerals of other townspeople.
The “small and unlucky” town of Ville Rose is about 20 miles south of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and many of its 11,000 people are dirt poor: some are fishermen or farmers or seasonal sugarcane workers; many are out of work. The title character is a 7-year-old girl, whose mother died giving birth to her, making her every birthday also “a day of death.” Her father, Nozias, is so desperately poor, so worried about being able to provide for her, that he’s been trying to persuade a wealthy woman named Madame Gaëlle to adopt her. To Claire, this does not feel like an act of love. It feels like abandonment. The night she is to be handed over, she vanishes from town.
Like the author’s powerful 2004 novel, “The Dew Breaker,”this book uses overlapping tales to create an elliptical but propulsive narrative. But while “The Dew Breaker” looked at Haiti’s bloody history head on — giving us portraits of a former member of the Tontons Macoute, who had murdered or tortured scores of innocent people, and his victims — most of the well-known woes of Haiti remain offstage here.
Instead, the perennial subjects in Ms. Danticat’s fiction and nonfiction — the weight of Haiti’s violent history, its extreme poverty and the diaspora that they have created — are addressed indirectly through the stories of Claire and her family and neighbors in this small town where everyone knows everybody else. There is something fablelike about these tales; the reader is made acutely aware of the patterns of loss and redemption, cruelty and vengeance that thread their way through these characters’ lives, and the roles that luck and choice play in shaping their fate.
Claire is described as a “luminous child,” and her full name, Claire Limyè Lanmè, means “Claire of the Sea Light.” She is a bright, observant girl with a scholarship to the local school, but she is haunted by her mother’s absence. She wishes her father would tell her more about her mom, as though such memories were gifts that “could be placed in a box for her to open every day.”
She also worries that her father, a fisherman, will one day fail to come home from the sea, leaving her an orphan. If the sea disappeared, she thinks, she would miss its magic colors — “the turquoise in the distance and its light-blue ripples up close, the white foam at the peaks of the waves.” But if the sea disappeared, maybe “her father wouldn’t have to go there anymore, and the crazy waves might not get him” like they got his best friend, who was swept away on the day of her seventh birthday.
Death and loss haunt the other characters in this novel, too, shadowing them like dogged ghosts. It’s no surprise that Ville Rose’s mayor is also the town undertaker, or that Claire’s mother came from a family of professional mourners and worked in the mayor’s funeral parlor, washing and dressing the dead.
Nozias seems to think Madame Gaëlle might adopt Claire, because tragedies in Gaëlle’s life have left her lonely and alone: her little daughter, Rose, was killed when a car hit the moto taxi carrying her and her nanny; her husband, Laurent, a well-to-do fabric shop owner, was killed the same night Rose was born, struck by some bullets apparently fired by gang members, stalking the poorer section of town.
Gaëlle knew “her husband’s murder was never going to be solved”: “There would never be a proper trial. Bribes and corruption would keep anyone from being brought to justice.” And so she accepts an offer from two Special Forces policemen — childhood friends of her and her husband’s — to “seek another type of justice.” It’s a decision that will make her think she was perhaps not worthy of “seeing her daughter grow up.”
After the deaths of Rose and Laurent, Gaëlle has a series of ill-advised affairs, including one with the prosperous Max Ardin, who runs a school. “No one will ever love you more than you love your pain,” Max tells Gaëlle, and she comes to believe that he might be right. “Her pain, her losses: these were what was keeping her in this town” and preventing her from starting a new life in Port-au-Prince or abroad.
Like the other people in this novel, Max has also been grappling with familial woes: his wayward son, Max Junior, raped their young housemaid, Flore, and has been living in exile in Miami. Flore has since borne his child, a beautiful boy, who, when he draws a picture of his father, draws a stick figure with “no eyes, nose, or mouth, the outline of his face a simple O.”
Writing with lyrical economy and precision, Ms. Danticat recounts her characters’ stories in crystalline prose that underscores the parallels in their lives. One family after another is fractured by accidental death, by murder or by exile. Haiti’s social and economic woes seem to have poisoned many with anger and frustration, prompting wives and husbands and children to leave in search of work or asylum or a better life abroad.
In her affecting 2007 memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying,” Ms. Danticat wrote about her own sense of abandonment as a child, when first her father and then her mother left for New York, leaving her and her brother with relatives. Her mother left her with 10 new dresses she had sewn, most of them too big for her and meant to be worn in the years to come. It was eight years before Ms. Danticat came to join them in America.
In Ms. Danticat’s own story and this novel’s story of Claire, love endures in the face of death and departure and disappointment. In a letter that Claire’s father has a literate friend write for him, he tries to explain to his daughter how he thinks Madame Gaëlle can give her a better future. He tells her to “continue to do well in school” and to remember not to “sleep on your back, so you won’t have bad dreams.”
“And don’t ever forget your papa because I will never forget you. That is all I wish to say for now. Thank you for taking the time to read these words.”