Claire of the Sea Light
Written by Edwidge Danticat
Published by Vintage Books, 2013
Age level: Adult
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.
Each time I read a piece by Danticat I’m reminded of what a talented writer she is, and I ask myself why I haven’t read everything she’s written. Like many of our favorite authors at Vamos a Leer, her writing is both beautiful and disturbing.
In Claire of the Sea Light, Danticat explores these juxtapositions in the fictional coastal town of Ville Rose, which some of you may remember as the same setting of her novel Krik? Krak!, (hyperlink to EGpage) which we featured a few years ago. For those of you who can use Krik? Krak! in your classrooms, Claire of the Sea Light is an interesting follow-up, especially since each of the sections in Claire of the Sea Light can stand on its own. In fact, a few of the chapters were published as short stories in The New Yorker.
In Claire of the Sea Light Danticat plays with the concept of time as she tells the intertwining stories of the inhabitants of Ville Rose. The past, present, and future are not as clearly distinct as we may perceive them to be. As Danticat skillfully explores how the past continues to influence the characters and the choices that they make, the temporal element almost becomes a character in and of itself.
Even as she plays with the assumption that time is linear, so, too, does she play with assumptions regarding life and death. Generally speaking, life and death are viewed as wholly separate in the United States. Yet Danticat, pulling perhaps on Haitian cultural traditions, plays with the interdependence between the living and the deceased. In many ways, those who have passed away exert considerable influence upon the living. Danticat’s attention to this paradoxical relationship is evident through her decision to make the town’s mayor serve the dual role of town undertaker.
It’s as though Danticat is mesmerized by opposites, whether that be past and future, life and death, or even love and decay. The violent and poverty-stricken setting of Ville Rose provides a gritty backdrop for her tender exploration of how the characters experience love, light, and beauty.
Like in many of the other books we’ve read this year, the relationships between parents and children are significant in this novel. Here, Danticat explores both the relief and devastation that result from a parent’s endeavor to ensure the survival of his or her child and guarantee the hope of a better future. Nozias, for instance, is torn about what to do for his daughter. When confronted with the realization that what he really wanted for her was “a lack of cruelty, a feeling of safety, but also love. Benevolence and sympathy too, but mostly love,” he must decide if that means giving her up, not in spite of, but because of how much he loves her. Other parents throughout the story must make similarly difficult decisions.
There is much here for educators to think about. First, to remember how much many of our parents love the children whom they’ve entrusted to us. For those of us working with immigrant children, we may find ourselves wanting to judge the choices they’ve made, whether that involved coming to the United States through unofficial channels, sending their children here unaccompanied to live with distant family, or working multiple jobs with little time at home. But we must remember that, for many of them, this was the only hopeful decision that could be made. It was made to aid in the betterment of their children’s lives. These are families too familiar with Nozias’ feelings: “He was a bit sad, and his sadness, mingled with intense joy, made him hold her tight again. How does life itself, as much as you must want it in your body, not feel futile when you have seen so many dead.”
The character of the shopkeeper, too, provides an opportunity for reflection among educators. Towards the end of the book, the shopkeeper ponders her decision to rebuild the lighthouse. She wavers, “Already she was trying to forget her vow to repair the lighthouse. How do you even choose what to mend when so much has already been destroyed? How could she think, she asked herself, that she could revive or save anything?” As I read over these lines, I thought, that’s what it sometimes feels like to teach. The disempowerment, the frustration, the feelings of uselessness. But like Danticat’s characters, we must fight back. We must hold onto the hope that things can get better. As Danticat shows, light can come from blight or death, and love can come from decay.
Finally, educators may also appreciate Danticat’s critique of the notion of the single story. As the Southeast Review writes, “Danticat successfully challenges the idea of a monolithic story and shows that a person’s biography exists within the context of community: one person’s narrative is an important part of everyone’s story.” As I thought about this idea, I was reminded of discussions around the “Danger of a Single Story”, a 2009 TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie. In the TED talk, Adichie, a young Nigerian author, describes the powerful impression the multitude of British stories made on her as a young girl growing up in Nigeria. She addresses both the power and danger in stories—the danger of only knowing one story about a group. She argues, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Linda Christensen of Rethinking Schools created an entire lesson plan around “The Danger of the Single Story.” While we may not be able to use Claire of the Sea Light in our k-8 classrooms, the interrogation of the ways in which single stories are often unquestioningly used is a necessary and powerful activity in any classroom. Both for ourselves as educators and for our students, it’s immeasurably valuable to be reminded that everyone around us has a multiplicity of stories and experiences.
Before I close, I want to acknowledge that many other reviews commented on the absence of the earthquake, especially since this was Danticat’s first fiction published in its wake. While I can only conjecture, I could also imagine that her decision to omit the earthquake was also Danticat’s way of calling out the world’s hypocrisy – that our attention only turns to Haiti (or any distant place, for that matter) when there is a great disaster and even then only for a short period of time. We might surmise also that Danticat’s decision was an attempt to point out “that life and death in Haiti are about much more than any one natural disaster or political showdown or upheaval.” (from Huffington Post). It’s worth mentioning that Danticat has not shied away from writing about the earthquake “Eight Days, A Story of Haiti,” which Alice reviewed in early February.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book or hear more from Danticat herself, check out the links below:
- We Are All Going to Die: Nathaniel Handal’s interview with Edwidge Danticat
- Edwidge Danticat on the Power of Community in Claire of the Sea Light
- Their Blood, Bondye: a creative collaboration of the poetry of Danticat and the music of Pauline Jean
- The Southeast Review
- Huffington Post Review
- Island Magic: New York Times Review
- The Washington Post Review
- Boston Globe Review
If you’re an Albuquerque local, we’d love to see you at our book group meeting on April 18th!