Claire of the Sea Light

Image of Claire of the Sea Light
Release Date: 
August 27, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a shimmering tale of violence, tragedy, and ineffable beauty . . .”

Celebrated Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat needs no introduction. Widely published in the New Yorker, a finalist for many literary awards, and the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for the 2007 memoir Brother, I’m Dying, she has been hailed as the voice of the Haitian diaspora and the chronicler of the Haitian immigrant experience.

Her latest novel Claire of the Sea Light is a mysterious, magical, and lyrical fable about love, loss, and longing set in the island town of Ville Rose, Haiti. The plot lines are simple and elegant, and Ms. Danticat weaves the numerous stories in this luminous novella together with grace and skill.

One night, a fisherman dies at sea, and a seven-year-old girl—Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin (Claire of the Sea Light)—suddenly goes missing. These two events set the novel in motion and powerfully reverberate throughout. Their consequences echo through the novel in a haunting ebb and flow, like the waves of the sea, which remain a powerful, symbolic presence throughout the book.

Claire’s mother (also named Claire) dies during childbirth, and Claire comes to live with her father, Nozias, a fisherman, when she is three. Since then, on each birthday, Nozias contemplates giving his daughter away to a fabric vendor who lives in the same town, Gaëlle Lavaud, so that his daughter will have a better life than the one he can give her. But each time he plans to finalize the adoption, he changes his mind, and Claire stays with him for another year.

This year, the year of Claire’s seventh birthday, Gaëlle agrees to take Claire with her. The decision is a fraught one for all concerned: for Nozias, who must face the ghosts of the past and the loss of his beloved wife; for Gaëlle, who must grapple with the death of her husband in a gang-related shooting and the loss of her daughter, Rose, in a car accident; and finally for Claire herself, who has to choose between fleeing her destiny and facing the demons of the present.

But Claire suddenly, unexpectedly, disappears.

And with her disappearance, the town starts to give up its many secrets, scandals, and intrigues in a shimmering tale of violence, tragedy, and ineffable beauty.

Gaëlle, the fabric vendor, is mysteriously connected to both Claire and her dead mother and is haunted by an unassuageable loneliness; there is the parallel story of Max Ardin, Senior, the owner and principal of the local school, the École Ardin, and his son, Max Ardin, Junior, a Haitian expat with a dark past who is embroiled in a local scandal involving the rape of a house servant, Flores; Flores tells her story on the popular local radio show Di Mwen (Tell Me), hosted by Louise George, a lover of Max Ardin Sr. and also a teacher of a literacy class attended by Nozias, Claire’s father.

As the narrative unfolds what emerges is the portrait of a town and the subtly evoked story of a nation and its multifaceted people who struggle with a complicated past and present, told in evocative language that is as powerful as the currents of the treacherous sea that borders Ville Rose.

Ms. Danticat’s lyrical gifts are evident in her lush yet elegant prose that brings the island town and its environs—like the downtrodden, drug-infested Cité Pendue and Ville Rose’s iconic Antherè lighthouse—to life.

Through her story, she also shines an ironic light on the expat/“dyaspora” community of foreign educated sons and daughters and expat wives in Haiti, “women who lived in different communities than their husbands did . . . [who] came back each time fatter and reeking of citronella, every mosquito and salad and untreated glass of water suddenly their mortal enemy.”

Nozias’s frantic search for his missing daughter continues as these ancillary tales unravel, one by one, until the novel reaches its suspenseful denouement amid the clouds, fog, and ghosts that hover over the haunted Haitian town.

A darkly lyrical tale that will keep readers enthralled till the very end.