Friday, April 4, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

I wished I could have covered Edwidge Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light sooner, as it came out in August of last year, but I am glad I was able to eventually get to it and discuss it here. It is my third Danticat book after Brother, I'm Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory, and I knew I would get another interesting look at life in Haiti.

The Situation: Nozias, a fisherman in Ville Rose, Haiti, takes his daughter Claire to her mother's grave every year on her birthday. Claire never knew her mother as she died in child-birth, and she still knows very little about her as her father doesn't speak much about her, or about anything really. And while the trip to the grave site is an annual tradition, this year the ending will be slightly different as Nozias has finally come to the difficult decision of giving Claire away so she can have a better life with another family. It isn't a decision he is making for money, and he knows it is one that would bring Claire's mother much grief if she were alive to witness it. Even so, he has decided that this, her seventh birthday, will be the last birthday on which they will visit her mother's grave together.

The Problem: As Nozias prepares to hand Claire over to Madame Gaelle, the local fabric store owner, Claire suddenly goes missing. In Ville Rose, there are many possibilities as to where she could have gone. The sea could have claimed her, as it has claimed so many over the years. But she also could have simply run off, knowing full well that she was about to be handed off to someone else and would most likely never see her father again. Soon, everyone gathered at the beach that night is looking for Claire and calling her name, while Nozias pretends not to panic. And as the history of Nozias and his daughter is told, so is the history of other citizens of Ville Rose, as well as their connection to Nozias and Claire, as well as each other.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Haiti, although there is never an actual year given. Also, parts of the story go back at least ten years, before Nozias had even met Claire's mother. And for a good chunk of the novel, maybe even more than half of it, the story isn't even focused on either Nozias or Claire. Danticat tells the story of Madame Gaelle and her life full of loss and grief; of Max Senior and his attempt to protect his position as well as his school; of Max Junior and his desire to prove himself to his father while creating a whole other kind of trouble; of Louise and her scandalous radio show that few approve of but everyone seems to listen to; of Bernard and life in the Ville Rose slums; and of Flore and her attempts to live her life despite the cruel hand it has dealt her. It is one of those novels that starts in one place and spreads out like a spider's web across the town, connecting characters to each other and to the town itself. On the surface it is a story about death and life as there are several instances where as one life is ending just as another one is beginning. But it is also about family, and the kind of pain being part of one can bring you. 

My Verdict: When this is done well - starting with one character and moving throughout the community, jumping from one character to another, connecting them along the way - it can make for an incredible story. When it is done badly, it just becomes confusing and frustrating, especially when it feels like a writer is just leaving a character behind when the reader just became interested in them. But Danticat does it very well. Instead of it feeling like Nozias and Claire have been neglected for the majority of the book, it feels like the reader is getting several stories for the price of one. And the fact that they are all woven together creates a curiosity as to where the story could be going next, and a wonder as to what other secret could possibly be revealed on the next page. Sure there is an ever-present concern as to whether Claire is okay and will ever be found, but Danticat made it where I was okay with waiting for the answer while learning about other people who at first seemed to be completely unrelated to the basic story. Lover's of Danticat's previous books will appreciate this one as well, as will anyone else interested in writer's from the new immigration.

Favorite Moment: When Louise uses her radio show to expose a great injustice that has occurred in Ville Rose.

Favorite Character: I have decided to pick Madame Gaelle because of her generosity despite having gone through her own amount of pain and grief. She shows her generosity to both Nozias and Claire even before agreeing to take the young girl into her home. Also, she was generous to Claire's mother before she moved in with Nozias.

Recommended Reading: I recommend one of Danticat's earliest works, Breath, Eyes, Memory. It is part set in Haiti, part set in New York City, and tells the story of a young girl who joins her mother in America after having lived most of her life without her.

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