'Claire of the Sea Light' more than a missing-child tale
On her seventh birthday, when her father makes the agonizing decision to give her away to the local fabric vendor, who can offer a better life, Claire Limye Lanme Faustin vanishes.
One minute she's there — a limber figure in a pink birthday dress walking toward her father's shack in a Haitian fishing village to gather her school uniforms and notebooks for her new home — and then she's gone.
In Edwidge Danticat's luminous new novel, the ensuing search for the missing girl serves as a way of re-examining what we overlook and undervalue in life. Set on a single day in tiny Ville Rose, Danticat tells the story through a kaleidoscope of perspectives that illuminates life in the island nation where the roles of ex-pats, gangs, radio journalists and shopkeepers crisscross the decimated landscape.
In a voice tuned to the frequency of sorrow, with a calmness that neither apologizes nor inflames, the Miami-based author lays out the terrible choice that many in Haiti have faced: Keep a child in deepest poverty or offer the child to someone with better prospects.
Danticat, who was born in Haiti and has lived in the United States since childhood, has been successfully serving as interpreter between the two worlds for years. In “Claire of the Sea Light,” Danticat, winner of a MacArthur fellowship and an Oprah Book Club author, builds on her previous work conveying the intimacies of daily Haitian life while also keeping enough distance to make sense to an audience far from the violent coups, earthquakes and destitution that have marked the country's difficult history.
And although the story's timeline may be a touch disorienting at the start, it quickly straightens out into a remarkably well-plotted combination of mystery and social critique.
Danticat is a beautiful storyteller who doesn't shy from the brutalities Haitians face: A radio reporter is executed in his bed, a gang leader sips a beer with a prosthetic arm. But she also applies a finely tuned sensibility to the beauty that surrounds the pain. Lips red as cherries, a talcum-powered neck, a white hibiscus tucked behind an ear, a wall of water that rises from the sea like a “giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky” — all these images go into Danticat's vision of Haitian life.
In the novel, the father, Nozias, a poor fisherman, has been raising Claire on his own since her beloved mother died in childbirth. Each year on the child's birthday — the anniversary of her mother's death — he takes the girl to visit the grave. And each year, he struggles with the idea of giving Claire to Madame Gaelle, a “woman of means” in the village who has lost her own child.
For six years, he turns away from the decision. But then Claire turns 7 and Gaelle, who nursed the child after her mother died, decrees: now or never. The adults make their deal. And the child slips away.
The search — up the hill to the lighthouse, along the beach where a fisherman has drowned in a freak wave — provides the vehicle to examine the lives of the perpetually unseen, the less-than, the lost. They aren't always the people you might expect.
Gaelle, for example, is far from the imperious figure in the gold evening dress that Nozias perceives. A widow, she's actually impossibly lonely, mourning her own losses, trying to find a way forward, but keeping her struggle to herself.
And then there's Louise, the well-known host of a radio show, Di Mwen, or Tell Me, who is marginalized in her private life by a longtime lover who never gave her his full attention or respect. When he rejects her, she finds unexpected liberation in the slap that ends the relationship.
A guest on Louise's show, meanwhile, is reclaiming her own moment of invisibility. Flore used to be the maid in a rich man's house until she was raped by the son. On the radio, she makes the attack public for the first time. But the rapist, Max Junior, is running from his own demons and has more in common with Flore than either of them thinks.
Finally, there's Claire herself, whose small absence has triggered a wave of re-evaluation. In the final chapter of the book, we see the story through her eyes with an unexpected burst of clarity that wows the reader.
The day in Ville Rose comes to an end in much the same place where it started. But the village — and readers — are changed. Danticat's determination to face both light and dark brings the story to life. But her skill as a writer makes the balancing act a pure pleasure to read.
Amy Driscoll is a staff writer for the Miami Herald.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Ex-teammates say Kessel unfairly criticized
- Bomb squad removes unattended backpack near Pittsburgh police station
- Floating homes offer ‘affordable’ option in San Francisco area
- After years of downsizing, big houses make comeback
- New Penguin Kessel’s shot is what makes him special
- Early turnout strong for Pittsburgh’s Fourth of July festivities
- Pirates notebook: Taillon headed for surgery, Richard traded
- Russian winger Plotnikov could join Penguins in August
- America’s path to freedom reflected in region’s numerous historic sites
- Business gallery: July 5, 2015
- ‘Wax weed’ worries authorities