Claire of the Sea Light, a novel by Edwidge Danticat, Random House,
Reviewed by Esther Spencer
Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat’s fifth novel, takes readers on a journey into the island of Haiti. Danticat, once again, shares Haitian culture and history and provides an intimate glimpse into the way of life of the people. The characters she creates highlights the diversity of experiences on the island and the commonality of heartbreak that comes with life. The novel tells the story of the people of Ville Rose, a town named because the outline of the island resembles a rose in bloom. The name of the town stands in stark contrast to a town comprised of a small minority of middle and upper class people but dominated by those who live below the poverty line and struggle to make a living as farmers, fishermen, and seasonal workers. Ville Rose exists between the sea and the mountains, and it is in this liminal space where the story unfolds.
Claire, the central character, who the novel is named after, is a young girl who lives in Ville Rose with her father, Nozias, a poor fisherman. She is called a revenant because her mother dies during her birth, and her birthday celebrations also are a day of mourning. Her father struggles to take care of her, so she lives with her mother’s relatives until she is 3 years old. Due to the trauma Nozias experiences from the loss of his wife and the challenge of raising a child on his meager income, he contemplates giving Claire up for adoption, so she can have a better life.
Nozias decides Gaelle, the woman who gives Claire milk during her first day of life and the town’s fabric vendor, should adopt his daughter. Gaelle acts as a mirror to Nozias because she loses her husband on the day she gives birth to her daughter. Seven years later, she loses her daughter in a car accident. In this second juxtaposition of life and death, Danticat highlights the cyclical nature of life and the nearness of death that pushes life forward and informs the decisions people make.
Although the central action in the story surrounds Claire and her adoption, the novel also tells the story of other figures in Claire’s community. For example, a chapter is dedicated to Max Ardin Jr., a young male whose father sends him to Miami to go to school but returns to Haiti with the hopes of facing his haunted past. Another important community member who gives voice to her story is Louis George, a woman whose heath issues keep her isolated from the community but whose job as a host of a popular and controversial radio show allows her to share her voice and engage with the community on her own terms and in doing so, empower people to tell their stories. In sharing the stories of many of the people of Ville Rose, Danticat successfully challenges the idea of a monolithic story and shows that a person’s biography exists within the context of a community: one person’s narrative is an important part of everyone’s story.
Danticat also brings to question the singularity of history by privileging multiple voices. The character Louis George, who gives dueling parties a chance to tell their sides of the story, symbolizes what Danticat proposes to do with the text. History is more than facts. History is comprised of the effects as well as the cause. History is also alive; it stays with people, and plays a role in their present and future. The text is powerful because it provides a space where people speak for themselves, share their past and the trauma that brought them to their present situation. And for Nozias, the motivation and heartbreak that compels one to give up a child.
The novel’s organizational structure also highlights the importance of storytelling and multiplicity of voices. Danticat divides the novel into two parts, each with four chapters written not in sequential order. In the first chapter alone, the story moves from the present to the near past then to the distant past and back to the present. The story continues to move forward and backward in time throughout the text and tells the story of different people. It is also effective in showing that a person’s current situation does not exist in solitude but in relationship to the past and the present: it shows that the past and future exist in the present moment. The story also starts and ends with Claire’s birthday and the anniversary of her mother’s death. It continuously juxtaposes life and death and highlights the fragility of life and the centrality of death.
Danticat continues central themes that occur throughout her canon by telling a story of love and loss and the search for a better tomorrow by those ravaged by trauma. In telling Claire’s story, Danticat also rewrites and complicates the idea of the abandoned child by showing the anguish Nozias experiences. He is a father who does not want to lose his daughter but feels compelled to give her up because of his place in life. And Claire is the daughter who has to live with the decisions that other people make and represents the children of Haiti whose future are linked to a fragile past.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Brother, I’m Dying, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and National Book Award finalist; Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner; and The Dew Breaker, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist and winner of the inaugural Story Prize. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in Miami.
Esther Spencer is a reader for the Southeast Review. She received a Masters of Applied Social Science in history from Florida A&M University. Her essay “Across Border Lines: Genevia Valentine Dial Reid, Florida’s First Black Registered Nurse” was published in Varieties of Women’s Experience: Portraits of Southern Women in the Post Civil War Century. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Folklore.