A portrait of Haiti derived from facts alone would be grim. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, suffers from catastrophic deforestation and is frequently visited by the United States military. In 2010, an earthquake added insult to perennial injury.
Edwidge Danticat’s new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, offers a somewhat different picture. Deforestation rates a mention. And yes, the justice system is corrupt or nonexistent. But her portrait of Haiti’s people makes for a crucial difference. The living is decidedly not easy, but there’s summertime here in spades.
Claire is a young girl whose mother died while delivering her. Her father, adoring but unfit, makes the painful decision to offer her to a woman whose own daughter has died in a traffic accident as comical as it was tragic. In a parallel storyline, the local schoolmaster’s son, who joined the “dyaspora” to Miami, returns home and must face having raped his household’s servant girl and fathered a son by her. What’s more, his one true love was actually a man who fell to bullets long before.
Somehow, Danticat’s sweet touch makes this bad medicine go down. Her prose is simple and concrete, her characters vivid and warm. There is a timelessness about this tale that elevates it almost to parable. It recalls other novels of the Caribbean, from The Old Man and the Sea to A House for Mr. Biswas. Almost 20 years after Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!, Danticat has become the Naipaul of her generation.
Though Danticat resides in Miami, this novel’s strongest character is the one who stays behind. Her reasoning? “She liked her ghosts nearby.”