Claire of the sea Light Fails to Illumine

Edwidge Danticat
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



Lynched: From Punk to Trad

Cold Old Fire

Lynched is the brainchild of Dublin bothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, who once prowled the city's punk rock scene. These days they're more likely to be found in archives and old songbooks trawling for old ballads and music hall ditties that fit well with the four-part harmony singing (often in minor key) with band mates Radie Peat and Daire Garvin. The transition from punk to traditional music is much remarked upon by over- zealous reviewers who fail to realize that musicians—Billy Bragg comes to mind--make such leaps regularly and organically. Don't we all start with what we know, experiment, and then revisit our roots? My forte into solo singers began with hearing my father play records from Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra. It didn't take much imagination to gravitate to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Pete Seeger. Although folks of my generation still prefer Dylan's gravely poetry to Bing's canned smoothness, Mitchell's angelic tones to Garland's theatrics, and Pete's politics to Frank's, legions of us have had the experience of being gobsmacked when hearing a Sinatra song in an Italian deli and thinking, "Holy cow! Old blue eyes sure did know how to phrase a line."

Call Lynched a similar return to the source—the material that was once commonplace in Dublin. There's fiddle, banjo, whistles, uilleann pipes, guitar, and snare drum on Cold Old Fire, but all of the instrumentation takes (ahem!) second fiddle to complex harmony singing. The approach, vocals, and material will put you in mind of British Isle stalwarts such as The Watersons, The Copper Family, Roberts and Barrand, and The Young Tradition, with a bit of The Incredible String Band tossed in moments in which instruments take center stage. The material is a thoughtful balance of old chestnuts such as "Henry My Son," a variant of "Lord Randall," and "The Old Man from Over the Sea," with delightfully naff music hall material such as "Daffodil Mulligan," with its "Fresh fish!" street vendor call outs and "Father Had a Knife," a good-natured takedown of wholesome family values. Interspersed among the twelve tracks are one original ("Lullaby") and material that made its way to Dublin via England, Massachusetts, Scotland, and World War One. The only misstep is the hidden track at the end, which borders on the cacophony one might associate with folk punk, but even it is more undeveloped than unwise. In the end, the most Gothic thing about this CD is its Wiccan- like cover. Add a booklet that superbly sources each song, and this album is a delicious throw back to the giddy days of the early Folk Revival. Don't worry about these guys came from musically; revel in where they are now.  Rob Weir


Museum of Extraordinary Things an Extraordinary Triumph

Alice Hoffman
Scribner 978-145163560, 368 pp.
* * * * *

I've long enjoyed Alice Hoffman's novels, though I always thought her just a notch or two above "guilty pleasures." Many of her previous books, including her famed Practical Magic, delve into the supernatural but even her darkness had a New Age glow and her style was literate, but not literary. Until now. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York and its labyrinthine plot twists and rich detail are evocative of works from E. L. Doctorow and Caleb Carr. Throw in a heavy dose of Jane Eyre, a dollop of Elephant Man, incendiary tragedy, and several, odd romances, and you've got The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Sort of.

New York was a very different place around 1900. Coney Island, where much of the book is set, had become a playground, but it was also akin to the Wild West whose protean energy conjured seaside analogies to Mark Twain's descriptions of the Virginia City, Nevada, of his young adulthood. Coney Island featured tawdry dancehalls, saloons, vice dens, and amusements parks, the latter a strange mix of glittery new technology (like roller coasters and electric lights) and down-market freak-shows.  Venture any distance from the developed strips, and Brooklyn became farms, marshes, and a repository of homesteaders and outcasts. In Hoffman's novel, it's also the home of the namesake museum, presided over by one Professor Sardie, who passes himself off as a learned man whose 'attractions' such as Goat Boy, a 100-year-old giant turtle, Bee Woman, and Malia the Butterfly are packaged as 'scientific' and 'authentic,' not like those fakes peddled by Barnum or the hucksters who've just opened nearby Dreamland Amusement Park. Except, of course, they're not. One of his star attractions is his own daughter, Coralie, who was born with webbing between several of her fingers and swims like the mermaid he bills her to be. Just add a convincing tail costume and voila!

Coralie's story soon intersects with that of Eddie, born Ezekiel Cohen, who reinvents himself and loses his faith after witnessing the shame of his father's presumed suicide attempt. We cross the East River to Manhattan, where the Lower East Side isn't any tamer than Coney Island. It's pretty easy for Eddie to disappear into a world of pick pockets, gangs, and tenement house petty crime–all of which he samples before becoming, first, a street detective for a man named Hochman who allows himself to be considered a seer and Jewish version of Sherlock Holmes; and then assistant and heir to photographer Moses Levy, another lapsed Jew. Among the members of the Jewish community, Eddie is a contemptuous apostate. In other words, he's as marginal as the unfortunates displayed in Sardie's museum.

Here's what I'll give you to whet your appetite: a Hudson River sea monster, a missing girl, an erudite Wolfman, a stolen watch, a Dutch hermit, an actual wolf, a Pitbull, horrors real and imagined, and a cast of characters with more secrets than the CIA. Real people also pop in and out of the novel—including Walt Whitman, Alfred Stieglitz, and Seth Low. This is a book about faith lost and regained, trust given and withdrawn, surface ugliness and inner beauty (and its reverse), and the roots you can prune and those that go too deep to dig out. The denouement comes in 1911 in a chain set off by two spectacular and deadly fires, that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and that of Dreamland. That fine piece of crafting is one of many in a novel that rockets between horror and hope. It is a triumph from start to finish. I was wrong—Alice Hoffman is a major literary figure.
Rob Weir

PS—For me, this novel surpasses my previous favorite Alice Hoffman work, The River King (2000). The latter is not one of her better-known works, but if you like Museum of Extraordinary Things, pick up The River King.