The press material for Edwidge Danticat’s newest book, Claire Of The Sea Light, avoids the distinction between linked stories and novels, though it leans heavily toward the latter. Unlike her previous novel-in-stories The Dew Breaker (her last work of fiction), removing just one chapter would cause the delicate structure to fall apart, leaving an incomplete picture. And instead of a retelling of the violent Jean-Claude Duvalier regime, Claire Of The Sea Light only contains brief strokes of violence, more concerned with how hard work, determination, and a whole lot of luck can lead one member of the next generation to an escape of these harsh surroundings.
Set in the seaside Haitian town of Ville Rose, a reasonable distance from Port-Au-Prince, the first layer depicts Claire, 7-year-old daughter of Nozias, a struggling fisherman whose wife died giving birth. He seeks to leave his daughter with Madame Gäelle, the purveyor of a fabric shop who lost both her husband and daughter, in order to pursue a job in the capital or abroad and position his daughter with a better chance for advancement. As the book progresses, the characters expand to local radio hosts, restaurateurs, a wealthy teacher, the town’s mayor and undertaker, all within the same 10-year span between the death of Claire’s mother and night Gäelle agrees to take her in.
The epigraph of the novel comes from Jean Toomer’s poem “Tell Me,” and like that seminal Harlem Renaissance author, Danticat’s great strength is combining touches of autobiographical experience with the collective consciousness of many characters. She unfurls the story of the handful of major characters like a blooming flower, connecting Claire’s mother to Gäelle, then Gäelle’s late husband to the son of restaurant owners serving Haitian gang members, then to the son’s friend and local radio host. Each time the story bounces through time, it shifts perspective, offering a glimpse of the small tragedies of everyday existence in Haiti, linking the townspeople together in a numb march forward.
Max Junior, the son of a teacher and local radio host, exemplifies the dashed hopes of a better future. His best friend inexplicably murdered, he moves to Miami, but never escapes Hispañola in his mind, returning to see the son he abandoned and confront the mother, a former maid in his father’s house, and his own demons connected to the night before he left. Danticat’s swirling plot progression repeatedly circles back to the same moments in time through each character’s perspective, filling out where they were, who they were with, and how they felt about tragic or celebratory events. Though she only highlights a handful of citizens, Danticat creates the small world of Ville Rose, a clock with many fixed parts moving in unison. It’s a tiny wonder to behold, and the author’s lyrical musings on unrealized hope in middle age and the faint promise of escape for future generations packs a powerful punch in eight chapters.
Yet the book isn’t without its faults. The end of nearly every story concludes with a dramatic event, whether it’s a death or an injury, an accident or a murder, an emotional revelation or a disappearance. And since Danticat never effectively subverts that expectation, the final few pages of each section don’t feel surprising when they take the requisite turn. Still, what starts as a story of the slight potential for Claire’s future doesn’t get bogged down in the past. Rather, it’s improved by the flashbacks, complicating her father’s choice by adding the emotional weight of the town’s collective burden. Danticat doesn’t overreach what she can accomplish with Claire Of The Sea Light. By maintaining a smaller focus, she creates a compelling patchwork of experience.