Fiction Review: “Claire of the Sea Light” by Edwidge Danticat

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“Claire Limyè Lanmè” means “Claire of the Sea Light,” the name of both Edwidge Danticat’s latest novel and its young protagonist. Early on in this slim book, Claire goes missing, and from that moment in time, Danticat weaves together the stories of characters that relate, in seemingly small ways, to the seven-year-old girl.

Claire’s father, Nozias, is a widower, whose wife is remembered as a saintly figure. He is a fisherman in a small, seaside village in Haiti. The day begins with the unexpected death of another fisherman on the sea. His friend’s death sparks a long-held fear—that he’ll also be killed and his daughter will be left alone. In his desire to provide a better life for his daughter, he tries to make an unthinkable arrangement: to give his daughter away. The surrogate mother he has in mind is a woman he barely knows, the  relatively wealthy owner of a fabric shop in the  village.

Danticat switches the narrative to Gaëlle, the fabric-shop owner. She is a lonely woman whose own daughter, just a bit older than Claire, was killed in an accident a few years before. Gaëlle feels a kinship to Claire because she breast-fed her the night she was born, the night Claire’s mother died. Her shattering grief has brought her life to a near stand-still. Reliving the loss of her daughter, she has little besides a life of constant regret. Following Gaëlle is Bernard, a teenager who’s fallen in with a gang of thugs, ten years before the day Claire disappeared and the fisherman died. Bernard’s story is short, highlighting the violence that touched the bucolic but drastically changing village. Later she moves to Max Junior, visiting his father in the village. Max moved to Miami with his mother years ago, and is greeted by a surprise visitor arranged by his father—his own son accompanied by his mother, their former maid. His father’s ploy is a desperate attempt to lure the young man back to Haiti, and it’s a good one. Having grown up with separated parents, he knows the loneliness that a child can suffer. Also, he’d learned a lesson from his friend recently, “The worst possible case of unrequited love, Jessamine had told him, was being lied to or feeling abandoned by a parent.” It’s with Max Junior that Danticat displays her considerable skills, easily slipping forward and backward in time around his visit. Her deceptively simple writing style feels more fluid than ever, as her characters select words from English, Spanish,  French and Creole patois to express themselves. The floundering village serves to illuminate universal themes: Diaspora, the economy, deforestation, global warming. She writes, “You could no longer afford to fish in season, to let the sea replenish itself. You had to go out nearly every day, even on Fridays, and even as the seabed was disappearing, and the sea grass that used to nourish the fish was buried under silt and trash.”

As more characters are introduced, the thread to Claire and her disappearance stretches thinner, but the rational and irrational fear of the parent losing the child becomes stronger. While Danticat explores the parent’s fear and the child’s fear of abandonment, she hasn’t, in fact, lost the child in this story. Along the beach, the night of the morning the fisherman died, cries grow more frantic for Claire. Like the dead fisherman, we begin to wonder if she will wash up or has been taken by the sea. “People like to say of the sea that “lanmè pa kenbe kras”—the sea does not hide dirt. It does not keep secrets. The sea was both hostile and docile, the ultimate trickster… You could make love in it and you could surrender to it, and oddly enough, surrendering at sea felt somewhat like surrendering on land, taking a deep breath and simply letting go. You could just as easily lie down in the sea as you would in the woods, and simply fall asleep.” (Kelly Roark)

“Claire of the Sea Light”
By Edwidge Danticat
Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95

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