Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat’s new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, is a powerful love story—set in Ville Rose, a fishing community twenty miles or so from Port au Prince. Much of the action takes place during one day that is important for several of the members of the closely-knit community and one family in particular, though there are multiple flashbacks to earlier years. Events on that day culminate with Nozias’ decision to give his seven-year-old daughter, Claire, to a woman who lost her own daughter several years earlier. The day begins as Nozias takes Claire to her mother’s grave (as he does every year on the anniversary of her death by childbirth). As Nozias gets older, he worries about who will take care of his daughter should something happen to him. The day has also begun with the death by drowning of one of Nozias’ fishermen friends. There is a ubiquitous juxtaposition of love and death throughout all of these events, and others, the precariousness of all life—particularly in a country like Haiti, where earthquakes, mud slides, let alone tsunamis impact on people’s lives so frequently, implying that only love can offer any kind of solace.
Nozias’ wife, also named Claire, was employed by the local mortuary, where she helped prepare bodies for burial. When Nozias thinks of his wife on the seventh anniversary of her death, this is what he recalls: “He had grown used to the dead being part of her life. Because she had touched so many corpses, some of their friends and neighbors wouldn’t even allow her to shake their hands or wouldn’t eat the food she cooked. But he was happy to live with all of that, if it meant living with her. Sometimes he could even smell the dead on her, in the embalming fluids and disinfectant. The hands that stroked the faces of the dead stroked him. He ate from those hands. He kissed them. He loved them. He loved their constellations of scars from all the sewing she did without thimbles. He loved how rough her fingertips could feel, how like a tiny grater, even when she was gentle. And he knew that her sympathy for the dead, her compassion for everyone, would make her a good mother, a great mother.”
But that was not to be. Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin grows up a motherless child, though not particularly unhappy because of Nozias’ overwhelming protection and love. Villa Rose is also protective of its people,
mostly rooted in fishing and the land though there are class distinctions between the rich and the poor. Not surprisingly, those with the most money do not appear to be that much happier or better off. Nor does education appear to be the key here. Danticat states of her characters, “In Ville Rose all things unexplained were attributed to the spirit world.” And she demonstrates that the worlds of the living and the dead are precariously close to one another.
Education and unhappiness are also part of the sub-story involving the principal of the private school, run by Max Ardin. He spoils his son, Max Jr, and sends him off for a fancy education overseas in Florida. Just before Max Jr leaves Villa Rose, he impregnates Flore, the daughter of the woman who cleans their house. Ten years later when Max Jr returns from overseas and confronts Flore and their child, a boy who is nine
years old, there’s a painful encounter meant to serve as an obvious contrast to Nozias and his upbringing of Claire. The boy leaves Max Jr with a sheet of folded paper, which he opens up after mother and son have departed—seemingly out of his life forever. Opening the paper, this is what he sees, “On it was the word ‘papa’ in small slanted letters along with a sketch of a man with a blank 0 for a face.” Max Jr may be faceless to his son, but he is also faceless to himself.
All of these disparate threads are pulled together in a narrative rich in tradition and folklore. There’s a colorful chapter about all the frogs that are dying in Ville Rose and what their demise implies for the people in the community as well as their environment. There’s gang warfare on the streets, resulting in several violent deaths. But there’s also the basic decency of many people and a sense that those who have committed infractions (including impregnating young women of less well-off means) will eventually pay a price. Above all, Haiti lives and breathes in Claire of the Sea Light, as it does in all of Danticat’s works, exuding a poetic beauty that is apparent to anyone who has visited the country—beauty in the midst of such daily poverty and squalor.
Edwidge Danticat: Claire of the Sea Light
Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.