Danticat’s ‘Claire of the Sea Light’: a Haitian story collage
Edwidge Danticat’s new story collection “Claire of the Sea Light” tells interconnected stories of murderous doings in a small town on Haiti’s south coast. Danticat appears Oct. 17 at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Claire of the Sea Light” will discuss her book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door.
‘Claire of the Sea Light’
by Edwidge Danticat
Knopf, 238 pp., $25.95
Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat’s greatest writing strength has always been in the short story, starting with “Krik? Krak!” (her 1995 collection, nominated for a National Book Award) and culminating in “The Dew Breaker” (2004), a book of linked stories about a Haitian torturer trying to hide his past and remake his life in the United States.
In “Claire of the Sea Light,” Danticat again tries for the collage effect of interconnected short stories, as she depicts murderous doings in a small town on Haiti’s south coast. The book has a curious butterfly structure, with its opening tale left unresolved until the closing story, and intervening tales likewise symmetrically arranged in terms of setup and resolution.
The “Claire” of the title is the 7-year-old daughter of an impoverished fisherman, Nozias. She disappears on the day that Nozias reconciles himself to giving her away to a well-to-do fabric vendor, Madame Gaëlle, who can offer the girl more possibilities in life than he can.
The tone is whimsical, with a slight bite to it: “The good news ... was that her father did not try to give her away every day. Most of the time, he acted as though he would always keep her.”
All three central characters in this opening story have the sharp outlines of figures in a folk tale. But as the stories progress, Danticat piles more and more thematic weight onto newly arrived characters who aren’t fleshed out enough to take everything she’s throwing at them.
The emerging concerns of the book range from gang activity and vigilante justice to the sexual oppression of women and the perils in Haiti of “a society where people are always looking for the next person to tear down.” Urban crowding, economic injustice, political corruption and environmental depredation also figure in the picture.
With so many things on her mind, Danticat winds up pointing you toward but not quite immersing you in Claire’s small-town Haitian world. In a strange way, with Claire’s prolonged absence, she almost loses track of the connection between Claire and that world.
That said, there is much, as always, about Danticat’s rhythmic prose and keen observational eye to recommend, whether she’s describing hurricane weather or the sudden arrival of cellphones in a country where none existed 10 years before.
Madame Gaëlle, rather than Claire or her father, winds up being the book’s most substantial, conflicted character. Danticat hits her with an unlikely number of losses, cruelly timed to have maximum impact.
“Her losses had not made her stronger; they had made her weak,” Danticat writes. “They had given others control and power over her. She didn’t want to continue being weak, but she didn’t want to die either. She was too eager to see what would come next ... She was both hungry for life and terrified of it.”
That’s quite a knotty constellation of reactions. “Claire” could use more similar twists.
Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.