Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Knopf, 2013; 256 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
I read Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light as a suitable follow-up, if not a sequel, to her previous book of the same style, The Dew Breaker. While that book explored the more painful memories of Haitian immigrants living in the U.S., in Claire Danticat deals primarily with the haunted landscape of Haiti’s present.
From some of her earlier short stories, Danticat has revived Ville Rose, an imaginary seaside town shaped “like unfurling petals.” The town’s mostly impoverished population lives at the base of a mountain range that has begun to noticeably erode. One mountain they fear in particular: Mòn Intil, or Useless Mountain. It once served as a refuge for escaped slaves and, as legend has it, “their bones still haunt its trees.” The unhaunted trees of Ville Rose are increasingly felled for firewood, leaving the rivers more room to swell. This flooding retards the town’s meager agricultural efforts, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the characters are also subject to twelve foot high freak waves, like the one that takes the life of an aging local fisherman in the book’s opening sentence. Nozias, one of the book’s protagonists, must watch his friend disappear into the wave. “Woke up earlier and I would have been there,” he sorrowfully admits. He is certainly referring to the wave of seawater but the image is also evocative of the wave of French imperialism that swallowed the bones of his ancestors.
Ville Rose is a town saturated with bad omens. Record-breaking heat waves cause frogs to crawl out in the open and combust. The sea has been over fished, prompting fishermen like Nozias to contemplate moving away from the town, perhaps for good. Only his daughter, Claire Limyè Lanmè, holds him in place. She is his most precious and potent connection to the woman he loved, Claire Narcis, who made a living washing and dressing the dead, and died giving Nozias an heir to his poverty. Ashamed of his inability to provide for their daughter, Nozias decides to place her with a family of means. He nearly succeeds in doing so, when seven-year-old Claire suddenly disappears.
This initial mystery quickly germinates and grows into a wide-ranging examination of the environmental, cultural, and personal crises plaguing Ville Rose. Each chapter of the book shifts to a different point within a ten year history (presumably prior to the 2010 earthquake that devastated the nation). In these ten years, a deluge of sorrow tests the residents of Ville Rose. Were it not for the lightness and confidence of Danticat’s diction, I would have struggled to find beauty in the book’s scenes of jarring brutality. It’s a good thing that, with Danticat, dignity is always salvaged from the wreckage of human callousness. The sureness of her ability to test each character anchored me to the book’s disparate elements. I learned to trust her methods as well as their results. While her imaginary town’s strongest bonds seem capable of surviving even death, weak social ties and superficial relationships are washed away by rising hardship.
As its physical conditions deteriorate, Ville Rose comes under the threat of rival gang lords. These gangs have emerged to wage war against each other as well as the government’s Special Forces. Danticat takes time to explore how money buries violent secrets and moves the criminal justice system, which asserts its authority by extracting bribes and engaging in torture and assassination. Gaining protection from one’s enemies is as crucial as staying a step ahead of one’s own sins. A wealthy resident named Max Junior, for example, earns a reputation as never having “even been sprinkled by rain.” The town’s deepest secrets are buried, but they don’t stay dead. Ville Rose’s extensive gossip networks keep its citizens informed, with some help from ambitious local radio talk show hosts.
It’s rare that so much intrigue can be communicated in delicate, lyrical prose. Claire accomplishes this with plenty of narrative to spare. Danticat masterfully weaves the kind of interconnected stories that contemporary readers crave while still allowing her characters time to investigate their memories and wander the landscape. The chapters that feature such extended scenes showcase her prose at its most lyrical and mesmerizing.
Some of these characters have lived these scenes in previous incarnations (portions of this book have been published in story form). This might help to explain how Danticat has managed to produce chapters that are incredibly taut and focused. However, Claire of the Sea Light is much more than a series of stories that have been cleverly linked together. Though there may be some temptation to define the book by its form, I find it much more productive to accept Claire as an exploration of loss and redemption that is thankfully as free of pretension as it is of convention.