Originally published February 2014
How often do you consider life’s circumstances?
Edwidge Danticat’s mesmerizing “Claire of the Sea Light” is as much lyrical prose as it is an unsettling, almost voyeuristic look into the often poverty-stricken life of a Haitian town. For all the central characters of the book, they’re tied together by their bonds to Ville Rose, the main character that is a seaside town where the least fortunate rely on the sea for a living.
Nozias Faustin is a fisherman whose mind is focused on finding a better life for his daughter, Claire Limyé Lanmé—Claire of the Sea Light. Claire’s mother, Claire Narcis, died during childbirth, and although he ritualistically takes the child to the mother’s grave on each of her birthdays, his desire for a better life for her is ever-present. His hope centers on Madame Gaelle, the widow fabric vendor whose young daughter has also tragically passed away.
It’s the sea that defines the beginning and the end of the novel, and makes key appearances throughout. It gives life and it takes it away. If you’re the type to picture the movie while you read, imagine a mashup of “The Color Purple,” “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and maybe even a little “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” There’s a certain level of mysticism that weaves in and out of the stories of Ville Rose’s residents, from the death spirits present at Claire’s birth to the dressing of the dead at the funeral parlor, to women who spit blood as part of a regular monthly cycle.
Sadness pervades nearly every tale, from Claire and Nozias to Madame Gaelle and Rose, Max Ardin Sr. and his son Max Jr., Max Jr.and his friend Bernard. But there’s also love and tenderness in these relationships, and even the occasional bout of vengeance—my favorite coming from a teacher unfairly scorned after she loses her temper with a unruly student. Lesson learned? Never cross someone with a show on talk radio. Bad idea.
“Claire of the Sea Light” is beautifully written—as mentioned earlier, lyrical in its movement from chapter to chapter. Danticat chooses her words carefully and also weaves in the native tongue—a move that only enhances the feeling of peeking into another world. It’s that journey to a poor Haitian village that was most impactful for this reader—in that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own life circumstances at any given moment and even easier to forget that sitting underneath 60 inches of snow still beats having to contemplate giving up a child, bury a husband or a son, or struggle with your sexual identity.
If you’re looking for something a bit heavier that explores the relationships we have with family and acquaintances, but readable in a weekend, “Claire of the Sea Light” more than fits the bill. And if you’re looking to share the experience, the book is the 2014 selection for Wilmette Public Library’s “One Book, Everybody Reads” program. Join friends and neighbors on May 4 when author Edwidge Danticat leads a group discussion about this book.