Edwidge Danticat is arguably modern literature’s most poetic conscience of Haiti. Through her lyrical works of fiction and nonfiction, including her story collection KRIK? KRAK! and her 2004 novel THE DEW BREAKER, she has painted an indelible portrait of life in her poverty-stricken country of birth. Now, in CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT, her first novel in nine years, she returns to Ville Rose, the Haitian village where some of the stories in KRIK? KRAK! were set, to tell the story of a seven-year-old girl, her family, and many of the town’s inhabitants.
In the first of the eight interlocking stories that constitute the novel, we meet Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin; her name means “sea light” in Creole. On the morning of her seventh birthday, she and her fisherman father, Nozias, are in their shack when he sees a freak wave crash in the Caribbean Sea. The wave not only destroys the cutter Fifine but also sinks Nozias’s friend Caleb, the only fisherman on board. Nozias blames himself for the tragedy: If only he had woken earlier, he would have been out on the water and could have saved his friend.
"CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT is more complex than you might expect from a short novel. This is a tribute to Danticat’s skill as a writer. She knows how to dispense just enough information to help you immediately understand each character’s personality and conflict."
Claire’s mother, also named Claire, died while giving birth to her. Unsure how to feed his newborn, Nozias brought Claire to Madame Gaëlle, a well-to-do woman who ran a fabric shop, when Claire was a baby. At the time, Madame Gäelle had a three-year-old daughter, Rose, and, when approached by Nozias, agreed to nurse Claire. Thereafter, Nozias refers to Rose and baby Claire as milk sisters, which they remain until Rose is killed in an accident after a car rear-ends the motto taxi (motorcycle taxi) in which she is riding.
Nozias knows that he is unable to give Claire the life she deserves. On Claire’s sixth birthday (the first half of the opening chapter moves back and forth in time), Nozias asks Madame Gaëlle if she will take Claire. “Pou chèche lavi,” he explains: He wants to go away to make a better life. But Madame Gaëlle declines. “Not today,” she says.
On the night of Caleb’s disappearance, however, as the townsfolk gather by the water to make a bonfire and say blessings in Caleb’s honor, Madame Gaëlle tells Nozias that she will take Claire. When he asks her why she chose tonight to change her mind, Madame Gaëlle mysteriously responds, “It’s now or never.” Nozias orders Claire to return to the shack to get her things. But when Claire doesn’t return to the beach, Nozias realizes that she has run away.
The stories that follow chronicle the lives of the town’s other denizens, many of whom Danticat introduces us to in the opening. We meet Laurent Lavaud, Madame Gaëlle’s husband, the man who started the fabric shop and who encounters troubles at the local radio station where he runs ads for his business. Max Ardin, Senior, is the headmaster of the school where Claire has been given a charity scholarship. His son, Max Ardin, Junior, works as a newswriter at the radio station but is sent to Miami when he impregnates the family’s maid. Louise George, the host of a radio talk show called “Di Mwen” (“Tell me”), sleeps with Max Senior, occasionally reads to Claire and the other children at the school, and uses the power of the airwaves to get back at Max Senior after an embarrassing episode in which Nozias is peripherally involved. And lingering in the background of all these stories is the mystery of Claire Limyè Lanmè and her whereabouts.
CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT is more complex than you might expect from a short novel. This is a tribute to Danticat’s skill as a writer. She knows how to dispense just enough information to help you immediately understand each character’s personality and conflict. And she achieves this effect with beautiful sentences. The young woman whom Max Junior impregnates reflects upon his privileged upbringing: “He had never, as her mother liked to say, even been sprinkled by the rain.” Another character has a mother whose “stern expression never changed. It was as if the heat of the kitchen had melted and sealed it.” The large cast occasionally forces Danticat to break a storyline’s tension and keep an interesting character out of the novel for too long, and Claire is less vividly drawn than most of the adults. But the beauty of the prose makes up for these shortcomings.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on September 6, 2013