“Remember that love is like kerosene,” a mother advises her young son, shortly before she leaves town (and him). “The more you have, the more you burn.” The question that follows is: Does the burning illuminate or consume? In this novel, both, though as the title suggests, the light is what matters.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer whose work has garnered the attention of everyone from Oprah to the MacArthur Foundation, has written movingly of Haiti’s troubled past and present, and of the Haitian immigrant’s experience. In “Claire of the Sea Light,” a series of stories of interconnected lives in the Haitian town Ville Rose, history and politics recede into the background, only to be felt as invisible forces behind these characters’ more immediate concerns: identity, romance, work and family.
Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin (Claire of the Sea Light), whose story frames the others’, is the daughter of a poor fisherman whose wife died in childbirth. On Claire’s birthdays (at least since she returned from family in the mountains), her father tries to give her away to the fabric vendor, a woman of higher status, who nursed Claire on the night of her birth and has lost her own child (and husband). The point, despite his very mixed feelings, is to give his daughter a better life. On Claire’s seventh birthday, the fabric vendor says yes, much to the dismay of both father and child; and Claire runs away.
Much of the book is taken up with other inhabitants of Ville Rose and their intersecting dramas — Max Ardin Sr., a man of means who runs a school; his son, Max Jr., who’s been sent to his mother in America for reasons that become obvious: Flore Voltaire, the Ardin’s erstwhile housemaid, impregnated by Jr.; Louise George, the host of a radio show; Bernard Dorien, a coeval of Max Jr.’s and an aspiring broadcast journalist; and of course Gaëlle, the fabric vendor.
For all its complexities, the story has a fairy-tale simplicity in the telling, which seems fitting in view of the sort of limbo most of these characters inhabit, somewhere between practical reality and the fantastic. Claire’s father, Nozias, for instance, occupies what seems like an almost timeless world — illiterate, living in a firelit shack on the sea, fishing for food, and keeping in his boat a mirror, comb and conch shell to attract the protection of Lasirèn, goddess of the sea. And yet the walls of his shack are papered with newspapers, the sail of his boat is made of advertising banners, and his child’s future is affected by the doings of the police and thugs, politics and business, that deprive Gaëlle of her husband, Max Jr. of his beloved friend, and Max Sr. of his son.
Through it all Claire, always “radiant” or “luminous,” wends her way, the very spirit, it seems, of Danticat’s limpid prose, lightly conducting her characters, and her readers, between the waking and dreaming worlds.
Ellen Akins (www.ellenakins.com) teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in northern Wisconsin.