Bookmarked: Danticat’s grace
"Claire of the Sea Light is the novelist’s latest exploration into the pain and humanity of Haiti; she reads at the Free Library September 16
Perhaps no author is so capable of demonstrating the restorative power of words than Edwidge Danticat, whose fourth novel Claire of the Sea Light was published this week by Knopf. The Haitian-born novelist, who lives in Miami, delivers on a promise of literary grace almost prophetic in its feel and certainly mythic in scope.
And yet she knows, too, that words, as a mirror on our perceptions and our thoughts, can deceive. Ultimately, she says, tenderly composed words can’t, they ought not, cover up what is going terribly wrong.
When Gaëlle, one of a web of Danticat’s deeply scarred and emotionally complicated protagonists in this latest book, notices the frogs around Ville Rose, the provincial Haitian town where the novel is set, are dying, she wants to believe the invisible and innocent hand of nature is at play. “They’d been dying so quietly that for each one that had expired, another had taken its place along the gulch near her house, each one looking exactly the same and fooling her, among others, into thinking that a normal cycle was occurring. That young was replacing old, and life replacing death, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly,” writes Danticat. “Just as it was for everything else.”
In Haiti, the normal cycles of things have ceased to function seemingly from time immemorial; and death is surely outpacing life. In her previous novels and stories, Danticat has wanted the reader to feel the hot, quiet, swollen nature of Haitian life and death together, the danger and the play, the shame and the innocence. All this is present in Claire of the Sea Light. Like her 1994 debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, from 1998, this book hovers inside the heart of an exceptional little girl come woman, Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin, who has been separated from a life she ought to be leading.
But Haiti is ever more chaotic in 2013. It’s “impossible to imagine that this had ever been the kind of place where people lived,” she notes. Still abandoned politically, rift by natural disaster, and eaten by violence, the place has descended into a living hell. Danticat reinforces this reality by plunging her narrative back in time; at once, at the start of the novel, Claire turns seven then six then five and so on, all the way back to her birth, which is also the day her mother died.
Now, at seven, for reasons of economic survival her decent father, Nozias, feels forced to give her away to the better off Gaëlle. And so the book creeps spider like through Danticat’s web of injured characters, each of them glowingly human and also darkly embittered, humiliated, and violent. Heroes here—Gaëlle primary among them—are also villains. Though no one, Danticat observes, sets out to be either. Circumstances prevail.
Danticat has the gift, like Zadie Smith, of being able to turn a character over and over again and notice things (without moral judgment) on the backside that weren’t visible on the front. And like the British novelist’s recent NW, the payoff of Claire of the Sea Light is manufactured through the intricate character web, where it explodes in the shame of a single (damaged) heart.
Danticat will read from Claire of the Sea Light, which was incidentally typeset by the Queen Village-based book producer Scribe, at the Central Branch of the Free Library Monday, September 16.