By Ron Charles
“Claire of the Sea Light”
A book by Edwidge Danticat
In the decade since Edwidge Danticat published her last novel, “The Dew Breaker,” Haiti has been drowned by hurricanes and shaken by earthquakes. At each cataclysmic crisis, the plight of her homeland dominated the world’s attention and then quickly faded into the background radiation of suffering that passes through most of us unnoticed.
For someone born in Port-au-Prince, the temptation to rage at the public’s fickle concern must be immense. But in her rich new novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” Danticat continues, as she always has, to speak in a captivating whisper. While disasters threaten to reduce the Haitian people to an undifferentiated mass of misery, her work pushes back, clearing space for individuals, restoring the variegated colors of humanity that storms and death and our own compassion fatigue would wash away.
Two of the chapters in this trim novel were previously published in The New Yorker, and along with the other six they resemble the exquisite short stories that earned Danticat the Story Prize in 2004. But even though these chapters often reach in different directions and sometimes concern different groups of characters, “Claire of the Sea Light” remains a novel, a carefully integrated collection of episodes that build on one another, enriching our understanding of a small Haitian town and the complicated community of poor and wealthy, young and old, who call it home.
Time is a slippery surface in this book. From the first page to the last covers only a single day, but Danticat constantly dips into the past to illuminate the recurring coincidence of life and death among these people. We meet Claire Limy Lanm Faustin in 2009 on her seventh birthday—and the seventh anniversary of her mother’s death. Each year on this day, she and her father leave their single-room shack to visit the cemetery. And each year on this day, the fabric vendor who wet-nursed Claire arrives to see if the time is right to finally take her away. It’s a ritual fraught with hope and dread, a father’s affection torn between the desire to keep his daughter close or to give her a better life.
Danticat is no magical realist—the peculiarities of this gorgeous, gruesome place are magic enough—but she builds her novel around the uncanny tragedies that accumulate on the anniversary of Claire’s birth. The girl has long known that “her birthday was also a day of death.” The fabric vendor lost her only daughter in a traffic accident on the day Claire turned 4, and in other years other characters are snuffed out on this special day.
In the opening paragraph, “a freak wave, measuring between ten and twelve feet high, was seen in the ocean outside of Ville Rose.” Claire’s father sees “a wall of water rise from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.” A fellow fisherman is swept out to sea. Amid the commotion of searching and mourning, Claire darts into the night, hoping to thwart her father’s decision to give her away.
At that perilous moment, the novel rotates away from Claire and her father to explore the lives of their neighbors in town. It seems at first like too much to ask, like a violation of our emotional investment in this precious little girl, but Danticat is a writer you can trust. The apparently disparate parts of the story eventually knit together in surprising ways that seem utterly right.
Many of these characters have some connection to the local radio station, which serves as a public forum for a community torn by violence and inequity. A young man dreams of producing a program that would invite rival gangs to talk out their differences on air, but those forces are more dangerous than he imagines. Another woman uses her show to let people vent complaints against their enemies and employers, but how satisfying are such public acts of revenge?
One of Danticat’s most entrancing talents is her ability to capture conflicted feelings with a kind of aching sympathy. In a chapter about the fabric vendor’s grief, for instance, she writes, “Her losses had not made her stronger; they had made her weak. ... She didn’t want to continue being weak, but she didn’t want to die either. She was too eager to see what would come next, what her husband and daughter had missed. She was both hungry for life and terrified of it.”
Those tightly wound threats of hunger and terror, delight and dread, vibrate through these pages. In one touching moment, for instance, Claire’s father first hears that his wife is pregnant: “He was a bit sad, and his sadness, mingled with intense joy, made him hold her tight again. How does life itself, as much as you must want it in your body, not feel futile when you have seen so many dead?”
All of Danticat’s characters confront that spiritual conundrum. The headmaster at the village thinks, “Life had become so cheap that you could give anyone a few dollars to snuff if out,” and yet he persists, determined to teach these children in a carefully maintained atmosphere of respect and order. Meanwhile, in a chapter of studied subtlety, the headmaster’s adult son struggles to reconcile his sexuality with others’ expectations, a predicament that inspires him to commit a beastly crime to prove his normalcy.
Danticat has perfected a style of extraordinary restraint and dignity that can convey tremendous emotional impact. But in celebration of Claire, the life force of this novel, she delivers a kind of incantation that repels the rising tide of despair among these poor people. Hearing villagers searching for the little girl on the night of her birthday, the headmaster’s distraught son can’t help but feel inspired: “The name was as buoyant as it sounded. It was the kind of name that you said with love, that you whispered in your woman’s ears the night before your child was born. It was the kind of name you could easily carry in your dreams, in your mouth, the kind of name that made you clap your hands against your chest when you heard it being shouted out of so many mouths. It was the kind of name you might find in poems or love letters, or songs. It was a love name and not a revenge name. It was the kind of name that you could call out with hope. It was the kind of name that had the power to make the sun rise.”
That’s a tall order for a name—or a novel. But it’s not beyond Danticat’s power.
Ron Charles is the deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World.
©2013, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group