Arts & Entertainment
At Sea: In this novel, both the ocean and poverty unmoor lives in a coastal town in Haiti
Book Review - Claire of the Sea Light / By Edwidge Danticat
The morning Claire turns 7, a giant wave takes the life of a poor Haitian fisherman. Later that day, Claire’s father, Nozias, also a poor fisherman, fixes her hair, dresses her in her best pink dress and then tries to give his daughter away.
Nozias, whose wife died giving birth to Claire, has made the same offer several times before on the girl’s birthday, always to Gael Lavaud, a successful fabric store owner who will be better able to provide for Claire. His motivation is not only to improve life for his daughter, but to free himself to leave town in search of a better life for himself. This year Gael, who lost her daughter in a car accident, agrees to the proposal. Claire, overhearing the conversation, disappears.
The story of Claire’s disappearance in “Claire of the Sea Light” takes place over the course of one day in Ville Rose, a fictional coastal town in Haiti. Many families survive by fishing, and most of the 11,000 people are “poor, dirt-poor.”
Author Edwige Danticat uses the events of one day as a lens to look at a bigger picture. Through effective use of flashbacks Danticat expands the time covered in this short novel to include the previous 10 years and to introduce multiple characters. Their larger stories and interconnected lives help the reader understand the village and provide a vivid slice of life in small-town coastal Haiti. Many of the characters are disappointed, desperate or resigned. Some are determined and hopeful, whether or not they are realistic in that hope. Nothing seems simple for the people of Ville Rose.
The characters have each suffered in their own way: Bernard lives in a “destitute and treacherous extension of Ville Rose … the region’s first circle of hell.” He is friendly with gang members who frequent his parents’ restaurant, and he wants to have his own radio show.
Louise already works at the radio station and will share on the air any dirt she can dig up.
Albert, the mayor, runs a funeral parlor that has been in his family for four generations.
Max Senior is the founder and headmaster of a school. His son, Max Junior, a friend of Bernard’s, has to move suddenly to Miami.
A central theme in “Claire” is the challenges faced by young people in Haiti and the hopelessness that results from them. In thinking about his son’s peers, Max Senior ponders, “There was something tragic about a generation whose hopes had been raised, then dashed over and over again. Had they been poisoned by disappointment? … Life had become so cheap that you could give anyone a few dollars to snuff it out.” Then the father questions those his own age, “Maybe his generation was the problem. They’d built a society that was useless to their children.”
The sea is also a constant presence in Ville Rose. The book opens with a description of the wave that takes Caleb, the missing fisherman: “a wall of water [rising] from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.” Claire fearfully describes the danger posed by the sea: “Hats fell into the sea. Hearts fell into the sea. So much had fallen into the sea, including Caleb.” She is afraid that her father will “fall into the sea” and thinks that “maybe if the sea disappeared her father wouldn’t have to go there anymore, and the crazy waves might not get him.”
Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the U.S. when she was 12. She was first published in her teens and has won numerous prizes for her fiction, including a National Book Award nomination for her book of stories “Krik? Krak!”, along with the National Book Critics Circle Award for the memoir “Brother, I’m Dying,” and a MacArthur “genius” grant.
“Claire” is one of her novels about the difficult lives of poor Haitians, in both Haiti and the diaspora. In an interview Danticat says that, before immigrating to New York, her parents faced the same choice as Claire’s father: whether to give their daughter away because they could not afford to provide for her.
The author’s spare prose efficiently characterizes the people who populate Ville Rose and evocatively describes the conditions villagers face.