Edwidge Danticat's third novel, THE DEW BREAKER, arrives in bookstores on the heels of major turmoil in the author's native Haiti: in February Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned the presidency and fled the country, sparking nationwide riots and the involvement of U.S. marines. These newspaper headlines make THE DEW BREAKER all the more topical and meaningful --- perhaps even more important --- on these shores, and the emotions in the story are all the more intense and vivid for the immediacy these events lend them. But to Danticat's considerable credit, this highly accomplished and extraordinarily powerful novel does not need these concurrent events to engage and move the reader; instead THE DEW BREAKER disinters the country's tumultuous past to reveal how generations of Haitians live in constant upheaval, no matter how far from their country they travel.
Danticat structures THE DEW BREAKER as a series of revealing vignettes, each following a different set of characters and tracing its own narrative arc. What keeps it from being relegated to the recent --- and frustrating --- trend of novels-in-short-stories is the focused cohesiveness of its chapters: each examines a different facet of a much larger issue while contributing significantly to a larger storyline.
In "The Book of the Dead," a young Brooklyn sculptor and art teacher named Ka Bienaimé learns that her father was not an inmate in a Haitian prison, as she has believed all her life, but a torturer --- a "dew breaker" --- under dictator Francois Duvalier during the 1960s. As her mother explains, "Your father was the hunter. He was not the prey." But as she tries to accept this news, she begins to question her parents' view of Haiti and wonders whether "maybe his past offered more choices than either hunter or prey."
The story-chapters that follow travel back and forth between New York and Haiti, between the unfulfilled hope of America and the crushing disillusion of the island country. But each segment of the novel somehow refers back to Ka's father and the agony and misery he inflicted on his people.
In "Night Talkers," Dany, an immigrant in New York, travels back to Haiti to visit his aunt Estina, who raised him after his parents were murdered. In "Monkey Tails," Dany's roommate Michel recounts his friend's escape from the country during the riots. Another roommate, unnamed in "Seven," saves money to bring his wife over from Port-au-Prince, only to find that seven years apart, coupled with the stresses of their new life in America, have dramatically altered their relationship. All three men live in the apartment basement next to the home of Ka's parents, who run a barber shop and are fixtures in New York's Haitian community; this connection binds them all together in a larger, overarching narrative.
Danticat also gives voice to people who felt Ka's father's cruelty directly. The title character in "The Bridal Seamstress" shows a reporter the scars on her feet where, after she declined his advance, he whipped all the skin off her soles and made her walk the long trip on bloody bare feet. In "The Funeral Singer," Rézia, whose husband he killed, takes classes to earn her high school degree, which is meaningless to her small but successful restaurant, but allows her to form a friendship with two of her classmates.
In telling these stories from these different viewpoints, Danticat creates a makeshift community, an ever-shifting shadow society of the characters' native Haiti. The violence and brutality the title character inflicts on his people, therefore, exists not in a vacuum, but in a very specific context.
Danticat is a writer blessed with both the curiosity to wonder how people can enact such cruelties on others and the wisdom to know that the answers are frighteningly complex and utterly impossible to explain in words. The task is futile, but as THE DEW BREAKER undeniably proves, the effort is worthwhile, even merciful. In the end, Danticat does not judge her main character or anyone else, but merely reminds us that "atonement, reparation, was possible and available for everyone."
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on March 9, 2004
The Dew Breaker