Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

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Review by Claire Hayes

There’s an enchanted sense of shared humanity about Edwidge Danticat’s third adult novel Claire of the Sea Light. As a freak wave off the coast of the Haitian village Ville Rose sinks a fishing boat on her seventh birthday, Claire Limyè Lanmè goes missing, just as her father Nozias is about to give her up for adoption.

Fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt is the villagers’ oft-repeated Creole phrase, we must all look after each other. Many of them, including the widow of the drowned fisherman Caleb, have taken care of Claire while Nozias himself was out at sea. Now, coming together in mourning for Caleb, they also share in the search for the young girl, at the same time reawakening their own memories of loved ones they have lost.

Claire is known in the village as a revenan because her first day on earth was also her mother’s last:

‘so her birthday was also a day of death, and the freak wave and the dead fisherman proved that it had never ceased to be’

In revisiting Claire’s previous birthdays, we begin to understand the close connection between life and death which exists in a community like Ville Rose, where the majority of its eleven thousand inhabitants are dirt poor. And why despite, or indeed because of, his evident love for her, Nozias believes Claire will have a better life with someone else. He has coped before with her absence; as a baby she was cared for by relatives, and he found comfort in keeping her first dress:

‘often he’d lay it across his chest at night, as he might have done with the child if she were with him.’

Madame Gaëlle, a wealthy fabric vendor, is the one Nozias has asked to bring up his child in the future. She was Claire’s first nurse but has her own sorrows:

‘Maybe she was not worthy of growing old with the man she had loved most of her life. Or of seeing her daughter grow up. Could it be that there was a puppet master somewhere who despised her and had decided that she was to be made an example of?’

The villagers often read into natural events the symbols of a greater design; a summer so hot that it causes frogs to explode is a sign that something terrible is about to happen. Ville Rose is at the mercy of the seasons and its surroundings, ‘crammed between a stretch of the most unpredictable waters of the Caribbean Sea and an eroded Haitian mountain range.’ Although the events of the devastating earthquake of 2010 are not directly touched upon, the villagers’ everyday existence is bound up with the forces of nature; fierce heat, torrential rains and the ever-present power of the tides.

There’s a blight caused by man-made corruption too. As Danticat introduces her richly interwoven cast of vibrant characters, it’s clear that those with wealth and connections like Madame Gaëlle or the family of Max Ardin Senior who runs the local école can either buy their own form of justice or move away. Most of the population though has no such choice; gangs are rampant in the adjoining slum, their members referred to as Chimè, chimeras or ghosts. Young people there daring to dream of a better life, like Bernard, whose bold ambition is to have his own radio programme one day, can instead find their existence violated in an instant.

The narrative moves back and forth, circling between the story of Claire and her disappearance and the daily struggles of the other villagers. Each one has a present haunted by the past, their thoughts becoming a meditation on their losses and the damage they carry within themselves. Bernard’s friend Max Ardin Junior commits a crime to hide a secret he cannot reveal and returning to the island finds his past is about to catch up with him. Louise George hosts a popular topical radio programme and, taking her revenge on Max Senior for his treatment of her, unleashes a cascade of unforeseen consequences.

These darkest of realities only serve to highlight the community’s enmeshed existence. In the final section of the book, the starlit search for Claire Limyè Lanmè unexpectedly brings to the villagers a measure of resolution. As if, by rekindling memories of the dazzling joyfulness of love before it was lost, within each of their lives, something is shifting.

Danticat’s writing has a deceptively simple, fable-like quality which pulsates to the rhythms of a Haitian village. Born in Port-Au-Prince in 1969, she now lives in Miami, but her writing is suffused with an intimate sense of place. Her love of her native land is woven into a lyrical narrative shot through with everyday warmth, yet she is also clear-eyed about Haiti’s shortcomings, the violence and corruption at its heart. In this she reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her warts-and-all descriptions of life in her beloved Nigeria.

Despite a considerable cast of complex characters, Claire of the Sea Light is an absorbing read and one I found myself devouring all too quickly. It contains a shimmering world, disturbing at times but also spell-binding ; a haunting and quietly powerful novel to savour.

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Claire Hayes blogs at Claire Thinking, which she finds a highly enjoyable distraction from ever completing her own novel.

Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Quercus:  London, 2014). 978-1782068518, 256pp., paperback.

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