EDWIDGE DANTICAT, the author of the novel, Claire of the Sea Light, said in a recent interview that when Haitians greet each other, the first one says, “Honor.” The correct response is “Respect.” For the last 30 years, this winner of the MacArthur genius grant has made it her business to bring honor and respect to her native Haiti. Masked as archetypal victims, Haitians are often presented to the world at their most vulnerable; we have seen little of them beyond their perpetual despair. In this novel, we encounter not only the poor but individuated, educated Haitians of means as well, people who are interesting, unique, and very much in possession of their own faces.
In Ville Rose, a village shaped like that flower, replete with petals, ovule, and thorns, it is the seventh birthday of our heroine, Claire Limye Lanme Faustin. The book opens on the same day that a freak wave has swept away the lead fisherman of the town. Still, as always on her birthday, Claire and her father Nozias visit the grave of her mother who died bearing her. They pass the fabric vendor, Gaielle, a woman of means, on the way to her own baby’s tomb. Nozias considers Gaielle his daughter’s “milk mother” because when Claire was an orphaned newborn, he brought her to Gaielle to suckle. Since that time, he has tried to convince Gaille to take Claire and provide her with the education that he cannot. Now, when it seems that Gaille has agreed, he is both relieved and devastated. Claire, realizing what is afoot, vanishes into the night. The search for both the child and the lost fisherman launches the reader backwards into the village’s past as a series of nested, seemingly random tragedies unfurl out of Ville Rose’s mythic history. The inhabitants tumble along like boulders in a flood, randomly smashing into each other, the violence no less destructive for its lack of intention.
Chronology is suspended in Claire of the Sea Light. It’s almost as if, in a world so stultified by poverty and environmental destruction, time were plastic. Developmental arcs are deformed or completely eliminated. The likelihood of arbitrary violence, environmental decimation and political corruption, creates oddly passive characters whose lives are frozen by terror and grief – emotional zombies. Jean Toomer was the first African American writer to explore such characters in his seminal 1923 novel, Cane. Toomer found beauty, complexity and an almost heroic martialing of resolve in these characters; people living in situations wherein attempts rise above their current circumstances would guarantee murder. Danticat pays homage to Toomer, prefacing her book with his poem, “Tell Me.” Like Toomer, Danticat’s characters are frozen in a lethal kind of paralysis – birth/death. Light – no light. The narrative therefore becomes similarly minimal – a series of related stories. The bigger picture, rather than the individual, is what she chooses to explore.
The natural world is disordered, as when pregnant Gaille emerges one morning to discover frogs exploding outsider her door. The natural world of amphibian death and replenishment has been upended. Whether this falls within the purview of Vodou, magical realism, or poetic license, matters little. This writer is so skillful that the event is believable, deeply disturbing, and strange — also capricious. Madam Gaille, who had thought her daughter would be hopelessly deformed, is compelled to pop one of the dying frogs into her mouth. That “night with a full moon and a cloudless sky, crammed with stars” she gives birth to a daughter, “plump and gorgeous.” In Danticat’s novel, the nearness of death is matched by the brightness of redemptive light. Claire of the Sea Light posits that the opposite of death is not life, but light.
The narrative is restless with portents. Laurent, the husband of Gaielle, pleads with the villagers who live up-river to stop cutting down the trees, warning that the rivers are swelling, the land eroding, the topsoil dying. His neighbors reply that they too would like to preserve those trees, and beg him to find a replacement for the charcoal they must burn. At her husband’s fabric store, Claire’s mother (also called Claire), brings Gaielle an embroidered green baby blanket she has made. “I know it’s bad luck to offer such a thing before the baby is here.”
Gaielle’s husband Laurent fails to arrive home, impelling us to the next chapter where we encounter a plague far more deadly than the frogs — gangs (Haitains call them chimera or ghosts). We follow the action to Cite Pendue, where we meet Bernard Dorien, an aspiring radio journalist whose parents own a café that the gang in question has claimed as its headquarters.
Danticat’s diction is exceedingly courteous, but as she wrote in her novel, The Dew Breaker, “It is the calm and silent waters that kill you.” While we sense it’s quite dangerous to have this gang squatting at the cafe, Bernard doesn’t try to protect himself or rid the cafe of their presence. Rather, he hopes one day to produce a radio show about “the geto.” He believes that “We can’t move forward … unless we know what makes these men cry.”
When Bernard ends up in jail, accused unfairly of a murder he did not commit, he seems more bewildered than angry. “Anger is a wasted emotion,” Danticat said in a previous interview. No one can accuse her of wasting her fury in this novel. In fact, there is a fascinating absence of rage in places one might expect it. When Gaille loses both her husband and daughter, she grieves, wanders about lonely and doleful. When her fury does manifest, seemingly out of nowhere, it is that much more powerful for having been deferred. Even the ocean is a living character in this volume, often violent, always rising. Almost compelling us to awaken from our stupor.
A terrific urgency for clarity, (in French, Claire means light) informs every corner of this book from the impoverished villagers quest to the wealthy landowners. “Di Mwen. Tell me“ is the title of one chapter. “We are here to hear your story.” Even when the consequences of one woman’s pouring out the circumstances that changed her life bring about the death of another, and the broadcaster loses her man, the quest continues. Tell me, enlighten me. On nearly every page, light is mentioned. Splintered light, moon light, lights gone out, sun-soaked floors, the stardusted sea. Gaielle resolves to repair the lighthouse as a gift to the town. Light even inhabits the sea as it tenderly embraces our heroine’s mother:
Her body parted the moonlit surface of the sea. . . . It was as though her patch of the sea were being lit from below. From her perfectly round breasts down, she was in the middle of a school of tiny silver fish, which were ignoring her and feeding on gleaming specks of algae floating on the water’s surface.
It’s no mistake that Danticat says that she is illuminated both from the light from below, as well as above from the moon. It’s the light within the dark we are discovering in this work. Claire’s mother laughs when her man warns her there could be reef sharks. “There will be if you keep calling them,” she replies.
A number of setups are left without resolution: Claire runs off to the mountain inhabited by dangerous spirits — what does she find there? Does she come across the spirit of her mother and resolve to let her go? The much-anticipated flood that Laurent worries about never arrives. The promise that Gaille had made to rebuild the lighthouse kind of withers away. We have lush painterly descriptions of characters whose responses to their circumstances are absolutely singular — Claire’s mother tenderly whispers into the ears of the dead as she bathes them, slipping them tidbits of gossip they might be curious to hear, but this series of interlocking stories doesn’t settle long with any character. Madam Gaielle, the character who ultimately is to manage little Claire’s fate, worries Nokias because of “her reputed lose ways, her rumored desperation for male companionship.” At the end of the novel, this very complex and loaded issue is never resolved. It felt, to this reviewer as if something critical had been left dangling.
And even though the book is called Claire of the Sea Light, we only see her at the beginning and end of the book. I wanted to shout out to Claire, “Di Mwen. Tell me little one, what did you learn up there, what lights did you see, and why did you allow yourself to be found?”