By Hector Tobar
10:41 AM EDT, August 23, 2013
In Edwidge Danticat's fiercely beautiful new novel, "Claire of the Sea Light," a rose comes to life on the edge of the water.
Ville Rose is a fictional seaside town in Haiti, home to 11,000 people some 20 miles outside the country's teeming capital city, Port-au-Prince. Seen from the mountains that rise above it, the town's shape is that of a flower, "like the unfurling petals of a massive tropical rose," Danticat writes.
The main road in Ville Rose is Avenue Pied Rose, or Stem Rose Avenue, and the many alleys are called épines, or thorns, an apt metaphor for the complex relationships among the town's residents. In the end, the town is itself the star and protagonist of "Claire of the Sea Light," the fifth work of fiction from Danticat, the Haitian-born author of "The Dew Breaker" and the memoir "Brother, I'm Dying."
Ville Rose is a place where the more peaceful and less crowded recent past of Haiti lives on and where it collides with that Caribbean country's violent and overcrowded present. There are rich people in Ville Rose, as well as a crime-infested slum called Cité Pendue that is inhabited by gang members called "chimeras," or ghosts. The past lives on in the memories of the town's residents and in the verdant landscape and the many magical and tragic things that happen in the sea and the mountains that rise above the town.
The novel begins with 7-year-old Claire and her fisherman father, Nozias, at a crossroads. Claire's mother died in childbirth and Nozias is raising his daughter alone. He loves Claire but worries that he cannot provide her with a safe and secure future.
"He feared being lost at sea or getting hit by a car," Danticat writes. What's more, the girl is a "revenant," a child "who entered the world just as her mother was leaving it." In Haitian folklore, such children often seek to follow their mothers out of this world, especially if they stay close to the spot of their birth. The only solution is to give Claire away to the local fabric vendor, a woman of means who is also a widow.
"Claire of the Sea Light" begins on the day the fabric vendor consents to take the girl and raise Claire as her own. The novel unfolds as a series of interconnected short stories in which Danticat establishes death and love as a kind of "cosmic design" that's shaped the lives of not just Claire and her father but also of all the residents of Ville Rose.
Soon, we are stepping back in time, 10 years, and meeting more residents of Ville Rose, a town that also featured in Danticat's story collection "Krik? Krak!" With each new chapter, the book excavates another layer of the story of Ville Rose, some elements seemingly disconnected from the others, until Danticat links each one with some deft plotting.
Danticat spins the story of the fabric vendor, Gaelle, who lost her husband in a gang shooting; of the young man Bernard, whose naive ambitions helped trigger that shooting; and of his friend Max Ardin Jr., who is forced into a kind of exile in Miami. Max Ardin Sr. is the well-off director of the school where Claire studies; we meet many of Max Sr.'s lovers, including a woman who runs a talk show on the local radio station.
As Danticat takes us deeper into this world, her command of the physical details of the landscape and the history of Ville Rose grows ever more impressive. Ville Rose is a fictional place, but it's described here with the precision and exhaustive detail of a work of literary nonfiction. There is a lighthouse — built by the grandfather of one of the characters — and beyond that landmark, "the hills turned into a mountain, wild and green, and mostly unexplored because the ferns there bore no fruit. The wood was too wet for charcoal…People called this mountain Mon Intil, or Useless Mountain, because there was little there that they wanted."
The landscape of Ville Rose is as rich and varied as the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez. Frogs explode during a heat wave, rivers flood and trees disappear. But as the story moves away from the plebeian seaside and up into the hills to take up more middle-class concerns, Danticat gives us a series of melodramatic plot twists involving gunplay and police interrogators, and sex and infidelity.
In the hands of another writer, the events recounted in "Claire of the Sea Light" might quickly devolve into a bad Haitian soap opera. Fortunately, Danticat is a prose stylist with great compassion and insight. And by shifting seamlessly in time and point of view, the sensational turns in her novel quickly lead us back to people who are struggling with concerns that are all too real.
Danticat's characters are caught between the hurt a poor country can inflict on its citizens and the love those citizens feel for their birthplace. "There were too many memories in this town to bind her and make her want to flee at the same time," she writes, describing one woman's attachment to Ville Rose, despite the loss of two people she loved to its violence.
In the end, "Claire of the Sea Light" brims with enchantments and surprises. Among other things, Danticat finds a way, in the book's final pages, to convincingly bring her diverse cast back to the Ville Rose seaside on the same fateful night at which the novel opens.
That final feat of writing brilliance brings "Claire of the Sea Light" to a place few novels reach: an ending that is at once satisfying and full of mystery.
Claire of the Sea Light
Knopf: 256 pp., $25.95
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