CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT
By Edwidge Danticat
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 256 pages
The news from Haiti is invariably bad. It spotlights corrupt and brutal politicians, frequent coups and regular interventions by foreign powers — usually the United States. Recently, there was the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and trailing cholera in its wake. Rains regularly flush the soil off the deforested land and into the sea, helping make Haiti the poorest country in the Americas. Of the 11,000 inhabitants of Ville Rose — the setting of “Claire of the Sea Light” — “five percent of them [were] wealthy or comfortable, the rest were poor, some dirt-poor. Many were out of work … .”
The phrasing and vocabulary of this description could not be simpler; the facts could not be clearer. There is a teacherliness at work here and elsewhere in this novel as author Edwidge Danticat slips information or translations of Creole into her exploration of the world of Claire Limye Lanme Faustin. She is a seven-year-old whose name means “Claire of the Sea Light,” But while readers learn some facts about Haiti from Ms. Danticat’s explanations, they learn what Haitians feel and how they live from her evocative expositions of other lives that touch or reflect on Claire‘s.
We meet Claire on her seventh birthday, shortly after a freak wave has swept a fisherman out to sea. Death has always typified the day because Claire’s mother died as she gave birth, and Claire and her fisherman father Nozias always visit her grave on the anniversary. They often meet Madame Gaelle, one of Ville Rose’s wealthy 5 percent, tending the graves of her daughter and husband. Nozias wants to give Claire to Madame Gaelle. She had suckled her on the day she was born, so Nozias thinks of her as Claire’s “milk mother.” And Madame Gaelle is alone. Claire could help in her fabric store, and Madame Gaelle could provide the womanly guidance and the financial support that Nozias lacks. Madame Gaelle has always refused his request.
The stories of Madame Gaelle and Nozias emerge slowly as Ms. Danticat weaves in accounts of other Ville Rose residents. Among them are Maxime Ardin, a devoted teacher whose school Claire attends. He dispatched his son, another Maxime, to Miami after he impregnated a maid. Now both his son and the former maid are back. There’s Msye Vincent too, the town’s mayor and funeral director, for whom Claire’s mother worked, and Madame Gaelle’s husband, Lol Lavaud, murdered outside the radio station years before.
As Claire’s birthday progresses, sooner or later most people make their way to the beach to commiserate with the family of the dead fisherman. There’s no real hope for his life, as there is no real hope that Madame Gaelle will ever stop mourning her husband and child, or that young Max Ardin can be a father to his son or can be the son his father wants. “Not many lived out their early promise,” the older Ardin reflects, having taught generations of them. “Some of this you could blame, as his ex-wife did, on the town, its lack of opportunities, its rigid social hierarchies. But his son, with all his opportunities and contacts, had done no better.”
As Edwidge Danticat circles nimbly around these characters, turning the light of her luminous prose onto each in turn, Claire disappears for many pages. But she always comes dancing back, a child whose name is “buoyant … the kind of name you could carry in your dreams, in your mouth, the kind of name that made you clasp your hands to your chest. … It was a love name, not a revenge name. It was the kind of name you could call out with hope.” Indeed, Claire, though characterized as thoughtful as well as charming, is primarily a lovely image of possibility in a world where most people are bereaved, disappointed or gripped by unremitting poverty or illness.
That Ms. Danticat can evoke possibility so powerfully in this attractive child testifies to her literary gifts: her lucid prose, her wide-ranging references, her sharpness of focus. It also testifies to her temperance. She has a clear-sighted knowledge of Haiti, where she was born and lived until she was 12, when she joined her parents in New York. Of course she knows Haiti’s many problems, and she does not shrink from writing about them. But she also know the society, and the ways its people cooperate and live lives whose details and seriousness are generally overlooked in media accounts of Haiti’s disasters. Since publishing her first book, “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” in 1994, she has won numerous awards and accolades, and “Claire of the Sea Light” is likely to win more for the brilliance of its language and the tenderness of its gaze.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.