Monday, May 12, 2014

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: A review

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Claire of the Sea Light is a book as luminous as its title. Edwidge Danticat's 2013 novel about the little seaside town of Ville Rose in her native Haiti is a hypnotic read and I was mesmerized from the first scene.

Ville Rose has an air of magic about it, yet it is a town where tragedy is an everyday part of life. The story begins with a tragedy. A poor fisherman out on his boat in the early morning is swamped by a rogue wave as his friend, Nozias, another poor fisherman watches from shore. The man and his boat disappear beneath the wave.

We learn that Nozias would usually have been out in the early morning with his friend but he had delayed putting out to sea on this day. It is his daughter's seventh birthday. If he had gone out, he, too, would have been swamped and would have left his daughter an orphan.

Claire Limyè Lanmè - Creole for Claire of the Sea Light - is that daughter. Her mother, also named Claire, died giving life to her and on each of her birthdays, her father takes her to visit her mother's grave.

The novel has Claire Limyè Lanmè at its center, but really it is about the town of Ville Rose. We meet several of the residents of the town, many of them poor like Nozias and his daughter but some few of them slightly better off. We hear them tell their stories and we see Claire Limyè Lanmè through their eyes. It is only at the end of the novel that we finally see things through Claire's eyes.

An important character in Claire's story is Madame Gaelle, the proprietor of the local fabric shop. Her life, too, has been touched repeatedly by tragedy. Her husband was killed on the day that her daughter was born. Later, that same much adored daughter was also killed in an auto accident. Madame Gaelle is weighed down by sadness.

It so happens that on the day that Claire was born and her mother died, her father took her to Madame Gaelle who was still nursing her own daughter. She gave Claire the first nourishment in her life and so there is a connection there. One of many actually.

Nozias lives in fear of leaving his daughter an orphan or not being able to care for her and he seeks someone who might take her and raise her in safety and be able to give her a better life. He thinks that someone might be Madame Gaelle and he negotiates with her over the years to get her to accept Claire into her home so that he can leave and look for a better job.

Finally, on the momentous night of Claire's seventh birthday, another day of tragedy in Ville Rose, Madame Gaelle agrees to take her. But before this can happen, Claire runs away.

That is the bare bones of this story, but the flesh of it is so much richer and is told with a lyricism that brings home to the reader the mysterious connections of all the people of this town: the schoolmaster; the radio personalities; the gang members; the undertaker/mayor; the maids and housekeepers; the schoolmaster's son returning from diaspora in Miami; and many others. We get to know them all and learn their secrets and their sorrows. We learn what it means to be a parent, a child, a neighbor, a lover, or a friend in Ville Rose. And in addition to those human relationships, we see the connections between humans and the natural world, a world that is never far removed from ordinary life in this town.

I admit I was not familiar with the writing of Edwidge Danticat before reading this book, but after reading it, I am in awe of her talent. I have never been to Haiti and yet I feel that I know it and its people so much better now.

I was interested to see that Danticat wove into her story elements of the environmental disaster which is so much a part of the problem of poverty in Haiti. The cutting of the trees has opened the country up to flooding, washing much needed topsoil into the sea, and devastating the habitat of many animals and plants. All of this, of course, has a domino effect which has as its end result the further impoverishment of the human society.  It is a vicious cycle which the population so far has been unable to break.

The feeling of tragedy that pervades this book was further enhanced by the knowledge that it was written just before and during the time of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. Ville Rose would have been right in the middle of that.




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