CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT (2013)
Vintage # 98780307271792, 256 pp.
Guess I’ll play the Grinch early. I’ve now read two novels by Haitian-in-exile Edwidge Danticat and I’ll be damned if I get her appeal. Here’s what she reveals to us: Haiti is awful—more awful than you can even imagine. It’s a land wracked by corruption, gangs, crushing poverty, natural disasters, and a well-earned reputation for being a failed state. Name your negative social statistic and Haiti is at or near the bottom. One’s heart goes out to Haiti, but this doesn’t make Ms. Danticat a great writer. You could learn all that I just told you by reading the CIA Fact Sheet on Haiti and you could skip the heavy-handed metaphors, the flights into fable, and the contrived flirtations with magical realism.
The story line, such as it is in a novel that tries to stitch together overlapping and non-chronological narratives, revolves around seven-year-old Claire Faustin, whose impoverished fisherman father Nozias decides to give her away to a local fabric merchant, Madame Gaelle. He does so out of love; his wife died in childbirth and he simply cannot provide Claire with a good life. But Claire disappears on her birthday and the rest of the novel speculates on what happened to her. With each new wrinkle, another story lies in the fold.
Calire's fate is revealed in the end, but not before other stories intersect. There is, for instance, the tale of Bernard, a young man who dreams of being a radio personality who can bring social change to Haiti—a fateful undertaking that leads him into the world of gangs and government thugs modeled on the infamous Tonton Macoute. His story collides with that of the Ardin family, father Max being a libidinous but idealistic school master and his son, Max Junior, Bernard’s best friend who flees to Miami when Bernard meets with misfortune. Max Junior’s return to Haiti years later is the tripwire for the book’s denouement. Alas, everything in between feels like filler trying way too hard to be significant. The magical and lyrical web that’s supposed to keep us spellbound amidst Haiti’s tragedy is like a hastily patched fish net that drops its load at the crucial moment. If you make it that far….
I did, but I can’t say I’m any more enlightened for doing so. This is one of those books where everything is a metaphor for something you already got. Haiti is bad. Check. Hope dies in Haiti. Check. Not even the seaside beauty of Ville Rose, the book’s invented setting, can ward off Haiti’s cancerous brutality. Check. The harbor lighthouse is a beacon for hope, but its rays are cast seaward. Check. Simple people get washed away by forces they can’t control. Okay, already. As heartless as it may sound, I was bored by Claire of the Sea Light. Paul Farmer’s real-life, metaphor-free descriptions of Haiti move me far more than Danticat’s musings from Miami. Rob Weir