- Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Filling our imagination with the realities of life in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat has become the contemporary raconteur of its people. In her newest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, she brings us to the “small and unlucky” town of Ville Rose. Having visited this locale in The Dew Breaker (2004) and Krik? Krak! (1995), she gives us an even fuller glimpse into the town and its inhabitants. Danticat creates a tale with violence, revenge, and classism at its core, weaving the overarching theme of a complex and troubled Haitian society.
The novel is centered on the disappearance of Claire, the daughter of a poor fisherman. Claire leaves her home upon discovering that her father has given her away to a wealthy store owner. She leaves because poor Haitian children “given away”—the restavec—experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. But Danticat complicates this social phenomenon. Throughout the novel the reader feels the internal struggle that Claire’s father endures. As Danticat expressed in an interview on the book, she wants to counter the assumption that poor Haitians give up their children without emotional pain and moral anguish.
In her depiction of a twenty-first-century poverty-stricken Haiti, Danticat shows the expected dire circumstances for many of her characters. Simultaneously, she represents the characters, particularly women, as defying their victim status. These women approach the adversity in their lives with quiet resolve and determination. Most notably, Flore, the maid of a wealthy family who was raped by her employer’s son, becomes a symbol of proletarian pride and resistance. Defying societal expectations, she rejects their offer to adopt her child. Courageously, she leaves with her child for an unknown destination. [End Page 214]
Like much of Haiti, the innocent residents of Ville Rose have fallen victim to violence from the nefarious gangs, the chimeras. But Danticat shows that members of the chimeras are not innately violent; rather, it is the condition of poverty that encourages them to commit acts of violence. In one instance, the wealthy fabric store owner Laurent Lavaud is shot by the chimeras and Bernard Dorien, an innocent young man, is mistakenly taken into custody for the murder. He is later released as a result of a deal made between the authority and Tiye, the gang leader. In a surprisingly retaliatory move, Lavaud’s wife, who belongs to the upper crust of this small town, seeks revenge for her husband’s death. This results in the murder of the Bernard Dorien and two other innocent individuals.
Danticat paints the portrait of a town in peril, which can be read as a microcosm for life in Haiti. She describes her mission in writing this book as “paint[ing] an image of a small place with big problems but also with big possibilities.” And what are possibilities for the enormous problems Haiti faces? Fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt “We must look after each other,” the words uttered by the namesake of the novel, offer a ray of hope for the survival of Ville Rose, and ultimately Haiti. Danticat infers that only when Haitians band together can they survive the dangers threatening the very fabric of their society. Thus, by placing her trust in the community, Danticat is putting the power to effect change in the hands of Haitian people. [End Page 215]
Christine Germain teaches writing at University North Carolina at Charlotte in the University Writing Programs. She attended Columbia University and Cornell University and is currently at work on a book of short stories.