In 'Claire of the Sea Light,' Edwidge Danticat takes on trauma of her native Haiti


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It's often said that in Haiti, no natural division exists between politics and gangsterism. Rogue police officers aid corrupt politicians who, in turn, rely on gangsters for re-election. After the 2010 earthquake, approximately 4,000 inmates escaped from the central jail in Port-au-Prince, and disappeared into densely populated tent cities. Even though many inmates are neither charged nor convicted of crimes after languishing in jail for years, gang-related crimes rose exponentially after the earthquake.

Edwidge Danticat situates her seventh novel, "Claire of the Sea Light," amid this social backdrop in the fictional seaside village Ville Rose, 20 miles south of the Haitian capital. This quiet novel doesn't delve into the political issues of the day in an overt or didactic way. Instead, the author (born in Haiti, immigrated to New York at age 12) gathers a sample of villagers and illustrates how loss, gang-related crime and poverty affect each of them. The entrapment of the characters contrasts with the expansiveness of the sea.


"CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT"

By Edwidge Danticat.
Knopf ($25.95).


Claire's story frames the novel like a set of bookends. She is a revenan, a baby whose mother dies in childbirth. Claire's father deals with the loss of his wife by distancing himself from his daughter. He never tells Claire about her mother. Instead, he seeks opportunities to send her away to others who may provide better care.

The novel opens on Claire's seventh birthday, a day made even more somber by the death of a village fisherman at sea. As neighbors hold vigil for the missing fisherman, a widowed shopkeeper, who lost a daughter of her own, agrees to adopt Claire. Under pretext that she is going home to retrieve her belongings, Claire vanishes into the night.

This is not just a novel about a missing girl; it is a look at the intersections of loss, longing and place. Each of the first five chapters features a different character and situation. While the disconnected chapters may seem confusing, the reader is plunged deep into the shopkeeper's life, and discovers that gang violence killed her husband and a motor taxi accident killed her daughter.

Bernard aspires to be a political radio show host. His attempt to report on gang activity results in his murder by a group of rogue policemen. Other characters commit rape against unwitting house servants or exert power in abusive ways.

The novel bubbles over with secrets: a man loses his only male lover; a parent feels rejected by an adult child; women believe they can't "fully exist in the world." The sea embraces both secrets and grief, but is unpredictable. Ms. Danticat writes: "[T]he sea does not hide dirt. It does not keep secrets. The sea was both hostile and docile, the ultimate trickster."

The novel doesn't pass judgment on the thoughts and actions of its various characters, even those who commit heinous acts such as rape. This raises the question: Is there such a thing as too much empathy? It's not clear whether cultivating empathy encourages the reader to view everything as radically connected in a circular cause-effect chain, or is a dangerous form of political and moral equivocation.

The narrative structure is like a set of concentric circles emanating outward from Claire's initial story. It's in the second half of the novel that the connections between these narratives, or circles, become apparent.

The shopkeeper hires rogue policemen to avenge her husband's murder, not understanding the depth of police corruption. The police kill Bernard, who was innocent of the crime, ironically perpetuating injustice and loss. The shopkeeper realizes that in taking the law into her own hands, "[l]ittle had changed for her. Nothing had been returned to her. A few high-level friendships had made her judge, jury, and executioner. Yet she still felt powerless, incapacitated, cursed."

The narrative circles back to Claire. She is not dead, merely hiding in an old slave hideaway. While she contemplates the slaves who once marooned themselves in that very spot, her thoughts return to her mother.

She expresses, for the first time ever, the simplest of longings: to know what her mother was like. It's this longing that brings her down from her hiding spot, and encourages her to return home.

Ms. Danticat offers a tentative, but hopeful image of Claire's return. The concluding image is one of resuscitation: Ville Rose comes together to save a young man from drowning at sea.

Ms. Danticat became a household name in 1998 when her novel "Breath, Eyes, Memory" was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Other works, such as "Krik? Krak!" and her memoir "Brother, I'm Dying," were National Book Award finalists.

In 2009, Ms. Danticat received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant, which, she notes in the acknowledgments, "gave me the time to attempt this book." Indeed, "Claire of the Sea Light" is a stylistic achievement for Ms. Danticat; the beautiful prose, captivating story and intricate narrative structure are to be savored.

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Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Twitter: @JulieAzzam.


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