Book review: 'Claire of the Sea Light' by Edwidge Danticat
There is no such thing as Haiti.
Or, as Edwidge Danticat makes clear in "Claire of the Sea Light," her new novel, there is no such thing as one Haiti, no fixed understanding, no single truth. Danticat has been fixing and unfixing her native country since the appearance of her first book, "Breath, Eyes, Memory," in 1994. She is a writer mastered by a subject, inhabited, a writer dedicated to opening her reader's eyes to something she keeps trying to see for herself. If she succeeds in this task, she is only that much more aware that what she's made us see is merely an ephemeral figment of her own vision, because Haiti will not be defined, constructed or mastered.
Or, there is no way to keep Haiti from disappearing. As "Claire of the Sea Light" opens in a chapter of short sections, time undoes itself right away, the eponymous little girl's few birthdays numbered in backward order. Danticat unfurls time, which is "no longer like in the old days, when Nozias and his friends would put a net in the water for an hour or so, then pull it out full of big, mature fish." What you know, she says, you cannot keep knowing. "You could no longer afford to fish in season, to let the sea replenish itself."
Or, there is no one way to know Haiti. The characters of this novel are vivid and intensely personal Nozias the impoverished fisherman and conflicted father; Gaulle the fabric vendor, whose child was killed; Bernard the hopeful, swept into gang violence; Louise the tiny, furious schoolteacher with her gossipy radio show; Max Junior, son of the prosperous family; and Claire, age 7 (and 6 and 5 and 4 and 3 ...), the "revenan, a child who had entered the world just as her mother was leaving it."
Danticat balances delicately their time on the page, letting them come forward and recede like waves before we can quite know them; and, as with waves, their strength is felt not only in their appearance but in residue, their imprint visible but also disappearing.
Or, there is no way to build Haiti. Families cannot cleave together and create legacies, undone by Macoute violence, or voodoo tragedy, or ill-fated decisions, or nature's violent reversals, or poverty, poverty, poverty. "The trees ... vanished into charcoal and the mountains crumbled and gave way, washing much-needed topsoil into the sea."
Parents cannot even keep their children. Nozias must relinquish Claire to the wealthy fabric vendor in hopes she will be cared for in ways he cannot provide. Max Junior searches for a son he's only just discovered, a product of a decade-old rape (or not a rape), and then is distracted by a search for Claire, Nozias' daughter.
A radio station matters for its quiet ability to knit together a village society, but even in that role it is an agent of undoing Bernard dreams of his own show: "He would open ... with a discussion of how many people ... had lost arms, legs, or hands. He would go from limbs to souls to the number of people who had lost siblings, parents, children, and friends. These were the real ghosts, he would say, the phantom limbs, phantom loves that haunted them because they were used, then abandoned, because they were out of choices, because they were poor."
Louise has a popular program called "Di Mwen" ("Tell Me"; Creole is woven throughout these pages) featuring interviews with people who have been wronged, who know the worst. The gossip she mongers tears at the fabric of the town even as it knits everyone together by articulating small-world truth and revealing hidden connections.
Or, the sensual immediacy of Haiti belies its reality. Max Junior "stopped at a street corner for fried plantains, goat, and pork, which he ate from a dented metal plate in front of the vendor's pot of sizzling oil, then washed it all down with a bottle of imported fluorescent juice." I think I will never forget the appearance in this novel of that "imported fluorescent juice," its unwelcome siege, the way it feels brilliantly in place while also perniciously toxic, undoing somehow the brief nourishment; the story it tells of Haiti's own riches deplored by its colonial history and tragic occupations.
Or, if you hope for a glimmer of Haiti, a shred of understanding; if you understand that to care about Haiti is also to lose it, to mourn it; or, to care about Haiti is to breathe and taste it and to sigh and delight; if you can bear to face the deep uneasiness of the impossible, then you will know you are blessed by Edwidge Danticat.