On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake, one that killed between 250,000 and 300,000 people and left more than a million homeless. Haitian-Canadian-American author Myriam J.A. Chancy wanted to write something that showed how lives were destroyed or disrupted by the catastrophe. The result is "What Storm, What Thunder," an accomplished novel of immense power and rare sensitivity that keeps us in its firm grip until the last page.
The book is a kind of choral piece composed of 10 distinct and compelling voices. Many of Chancy's interconnected characters live through "the Event" yet struggle to endure the seismic aftereffects. Some are less fortunate souls who only manage to achieve so much before their luck runs out. Each vividly imagined character, whether a survivor or a victim, conveys the enormity of the tragedy through their personal ordeals.
Chancy's cast is headed by Ma Lou, an elderly market woman who keenly observes what goes on around her in Port-au-Prince. She looks back on the day of the earthquake and tells how she and her colleagues stopped observing and sprang into action, freeing people from the rubble and saying prayers for those who were trapped. Everyone is treated equally: "The saints, the crooks, the foreigners, the white saviors, the bleeding hearts, they all need sustenance, and we give it to them."
We also meet Sara, who lost her children in the earthquake and afterwards was left by her husband, Olivier, to fend for herself in a vast, dangerous displaced-persons camp. Olivier's nickname for her was Wozo, or Reed: "You bend but you don't break." Little does he know that his grief-ravaged wife is now at the breaking point. Another dweller in this tent city is 15-year-old Taffia. By day she suffers the routine hardships of the camp; by night she is on her guard against packs of marauding males.
Some of Chancy's characters are marked by their great escapes: a drug trafficker has a near-death experience in an elevator; a sex worker flees a hotel that rises then falls in on itself, "like a cake of many layers." Others, such as Richard, who "rebirthed" himself by disowning his mother and making his fortune abroad, don't make it to safety but are given time to re-evaluate their beliefs.
Two Haitian exiles offer refreshingly different perspectives, those of outsiders looking in. Didier, an undocumented taxi driver in Boston, follows the unfolding news from "this white, snowy land of hard stares" and worries frantically about the loved ones he left behind. Anne, an architect working for an NGO in Rwanda, answers the call to return home and help rebuild her own country.
Chancy excels with her depictions of horror, adversity and desperation. One encounter is gut-wrenching. A five-page testimony by a young boy is tear-inducing. Readers who don't look away will be haunted by this important book for some time.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
What Storm, What Thunder
By: Myriam J. A. Chancy
Publisher: Tin House, 320 pages, $27.95.