Claire of the Sea Light
by Edwidge Danticat
238 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95
At first, I resisted what appeared to be the fablelike delicacy of Edwidge Danticat’s new novel, “Claire of the Sea Light.” Was it going to be too precious? Would her lyricism camouflage or ennoble Haiti’s life-or-death struggles? But it quickly became apparent that her hypnotic prose was perfectly suited to its setting, the tragic and yet magical seaside town of Ville Rose.
Danticat, who now lives in Miami, was born in Port-au-Prince in 1969 but left Haiti as a child, following her parents to New York. Over the years, she has become the bard of the Haitian diaspora, her concerns shuttling between and straddling two very different worlds. This book, though, is firmly planted in her homeland, in a fictional community whose comings and goings are less closely connected to any earthly immigrant destination than they are to the great beyond.
Although billed as a novel, “Claire of the Sea Light” functions in much the same way as the stories in Danticat’s powerful 2004 collection “The Dew Breaker,” its chapters gradually fitting together into a jigsaw puzzle of entwined lives. The title character is a 7-year-old girl whose mother died giving birth to her, “so her birthday was also a day of death,” a day to visit the cemetery every year. Claire goes missing in the first chapter and stays missing until the very last pages, as a portrait of Ville Rose’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal reality is painted and a collision of fates inches closer.
Claire vanishes on the evening of her birthday, just when her fisherman father, Nozias, who is perpetually contemplating an exodus in search of a better job, appears poised to give her away to one of the town’s few well-off residents. Madame Gaëlle, the proprietor of the local fabric shop, has been talking to him about this plan in the aftermath of her own daughter’s death in a car accident.
The day of Claire’s disappearance had begun with “a freak wave” that killed another of the town’s fishermen. Death — natural, accidental, criminal — is such a constant in Ville Rose that it makes perfect sense that the undertaker, resplendent in his elegant beige suits, with his “sad but gorgeous” eyes, should also serve as mayor. There is humor here alongside grief.
Danticat’s work, lightly peppered with Creole, studded with observations familiar to those who know Haiti, opens itself to a broader readership through her deft intertwining of the specific and the universal. In “Claire of the Sea Light,” for example, there is a flashback to the fabric vendor’s pregnancy, a time when, moody and frightened and intermittently self-loathing, she forces herself to swallow a dead frog. Over time, such fantastical particulars serve to enrich her image as a woman assailed by love, loss and loneliness. Elsewhere, in a heartbreaking scene, she considers sleeping with the man who, years before, killed her daughter in that traffic accident: “She wondered whether their coming together in this way — to love rather than kill — might resolve everything at last. Might her looking down at his sorrowful face, and his being in her sorrowful bed, help them both take back that moment on the road?”
In and out of bedrooms, graveyards, restaurants and bars, even the local radio station, Danticat creates rich and varied interior lives for her characters. The one voice that didn’t ring entirely true belonged to the child, Claire. Yet this proved only a slight disappointment because it quickly became clear that Ville Rose, rather than Claire, is the novel’s true protagonist.
Since “The Dew Breaker” appeared, Edwidge Danticat has written a family memoir (“Brother, I’m Dying”) and a young adult novel, and edited several anthologies, including the wonderful “Haiti Noir.” “Claire of the Sea Light” represents her return to adult fiction after a hiatus of far too many years.