By Mike Fischer
Late in Edwidge Danticat’s “Claire of the Sea Light” — a novel comprised of eight connected stories — an illiterate fisherman living in Haiti learns from his wife that he’ll soon be a father. “How,” the delighted man asks her, “do you tell someone you’re pregnant in a funeral parlor?”
Nozias Faustin’s question is both literal and humorous: Claire Faustin works for an undertaker, and she gives Nozias the good news while on duty. But Nozias’ ostensibly simple question also raises a metaphorical and tragic one: How does one carry on, in that charnel house called Haiti where Danticat was born?
On the novel’s first page, a giant wave from the life-sustaining ocean drowns a fisherman; on the second, we learn that Claire died giving birth to her daughter, Claire of the Sea Light — coaxing her unseen daughter to “come” even as she herself was going. Danticat describes mother Claire’s death as a “loving surrender” — a life-giving act that’s also a giving up.
Ten years to the day before little Claire’s birth, a girl named Rose had been born, even as her own father was murdered; Rose too is now dead. A third child — “not just handsome, but beautiful” — is born because his mother was once raped.
This confluence of life and death carries over to Haiti itself — a onetime paradise where the sea grass is now “buried under silt and trash,” deforested mountains “crumbled and gave way” and formerly grand avenues are filled with wooden shacks, abutting “a reeking landfill smoldering on the edge of an oil-streaked storm drain.”
It’s in this context that Nozias must decide whether to give his young daughter, now seven, to Gaëlle, the woman whose husband was murdered on the day her now-dead daughter was born. Nozias knows the wealthier Gaëlle can give Claire a life he himself cannot. But before he can finalize a “loving surrender” much like the one his wife once made, Claire disappears.
How, in a world of so much heartbreak and loss — where one can be “both hungry for life and terrified of it” — does one move forward? How, as Danticat asks in everything she writes, does one make peace with a past that continually interrupts the present? To invoke the titles of two of this book’s tales, how can one go “Home” when it’s haunted by “Ghosts”?
As with “Krik? Krak!” (1995) and “The Dew Breaker” (2004), Danticat’s use of interrelated stories allows her to answer such questions from multiple perspectives, which in turn enables a less dogmatic and one-sided view of characters — a small victory, on the level of form, over those more authoritarian Haitian voices insisting there’s only one way to see.
Viewed from one angle, for example, 29-year-old Max Ardin Jr. is a rapist; his victim is among the characters in this book who clamor for revenge. Max’s father sees him as a confused boy, ashamed of who he is. A loyal friend describes Max as “my very terrible and imperfect and dear friend.” Max knows himself to be crippled by a secret he can’t — and I won’t — disclose.
Much like little Claire, Max is also a lost child, both afraid of being found and fervently hoping he will be. “There was something tragic,” his father reflects of Haiti’s young, “about a generation whose hopes had been raised, then dashed over and over again,” in a country where “life had become so cheap that you could give anyone a few dollars to snuff it out.”
Danticat sees too well — and has seen too much — to raise false hopes herself. But much like Claire’s mother, this brave book dares to suggest that if we could learn to “look after each other,” even runaways like little Claire — or émigrés like Max and Danticat herself — would have an outside shot of finding their way back home