Claire of the Sea Light
by Edwidge Danticat
From Goodreads: A stunning work of fiction that brings us deep into the intertwined lives of a small seaside town where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing.
From the best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying and The Dew Breaker: a stunning new work of fiction that brings us deep into the intertwined lives of a small seaside town where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing.
Claire Limyè Lanmè – Claire of the Sea Light – is an enchanting child born into love and tragedy in Ville Rose, Haiti. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and on each of her birthdays Claire is taken by her father, Nozias, to visit her mother’s grave. Nozias wonders if he should give away his young daughter to a local shopkeeper, who lost a child of her own, so that Claire can have a better life.
But on the night of Claire’s seventh birthday, when at last he makes the wrenching decision to do so, she disappears. As Nozias and others look for her, painful secrets, haunting memories, and startling truths are unearthed among the community of men and women whose individual stories connect to Claire, to her parents, and to the town itself. Told with piercing lyricism and the economy of a fable, Claire of the Sea Light is a tightly woven, breathtaking tapestry that explores what it means to be a parent, child, neighbor, lover, and friend, while revealing the mysterious bonds we share with the natural world and with one another. Embracing the magic and heartbreak of ordinary life, it is Edwidge Danticat’s most spellbinding, astonishing book yet.
When most people in the U.S. think of Haiti, the first image that likely comes up is that of an impoverished country dealing with violence, corrupt governments, and the occasional natural disaster that wipes away whatever progress its people have made. They probably don’t think of the effects all of this has on the people who live there. How do they deal with the poverty and the natural disasters? What toll does the violence take on Haitian citizens? How do they continue on, year after year in spite of everything? These are some of the questions Edwidge Danticat tackles in her luminous novel, Claire of the Sea Light.
The story begins on the titular Claire’s seventh birthday. As the evening approaches, the local fabric merchant finally agrees to take Claire in to raise her as her own daughter after fielding this request from Claire’s father, Nozias, for the past few years. His livelihood as a fisherman has been in decline for years thanks to climate change and pollution, and he fears for his daughter’s future. Because there is an old and intimate connection between the girl and the woman, Nozias believes that this is Claire’s best chance to have a life beyond their little shack near the water’s edge. But Claire disappears before the fabric merchant can take her to her new home, launching a web of stories that jumps from person to person to person so that the books seems at first like a collection of loosely related stories, until the details of the intertwining lives come together to form a tale of a circle of love, loss, and violence that ultimately comes back around to a conclusion that is less of an ending, and more of a beginning of yet another circle.
I’ve had this book on my library wish list for quite some time, and though it was always available to download, and despite all the reviews describing the beauty of the story, I was hesitant to dive into it. My Read the World challenge has put some amazing books into my path already, but many of these works are devoted to dark topics like violence or poverty. I worry that all this darkness will affect my love of books, that it will drive me to stop reading, just so I can turn away from the darkness.
But I needn’t have worried with Claire of the Sea Light. As its title suggests, it shines in spite of poverty it depicts. In the city of Ville Rose, the people believe that ghosts can walk among the living. The heat is oppressive, and the fish and frogs are disappearing. Gangs are rampant, and the few people who have money send their children away- to Port-au-Prince or beyond, to Miami- so they might get a better education. And yet, the people who remain still have hope that things could change, if not for themselves then for their children.
This is not to say that Claire of the Sea Light is full of optimism. One aging character bemoans the world his generation has created for their children in one breath, and in the next he condemns those same children for not making enough sacrifices to make their own world better. This is not a Pollyanna story. It is a realistic one where people experience love, loss, and anger, and yet they move forward in spite of everything.
It is easy to lose oneself in Danticat’s narrative. The writing gives Ville Rose its beauty, but it does not soften its hard edges anymore than it gives evil-doers a pass for their crimes. The characters in the story- even the ones who appear briefly- feel like real people, as though you could book passage to Ville Rose and find Nozias in his fishing boat, or follow Claire through the market after school.
Claire of the Sea Light is as brilliant as its reviews suggest, and is a story that lingers in the mind long after you’ve turned the final page.