It is a town of 11,000 people but countless souls, a place where dead ancestors and long-gone émigrés feel as present as the populace, and where the spirit world gets the blame, or the credit, when reason fails. Rising above the sea on the Haitian coast, Ville Rose is a place of immense beauty and overwhelming poverty, where want is prosaic and violence a smoldering threat, and where only very few live very comfortably.
Edwidge Danticat’s quiet new novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” takes its name from a little girl whose father, widowed on the day she was born, tries each year on her birthday to give the child away. An illiterate fisherman who lives in a shack on the beach, Nozias is flailing, desperate for Claire to have a better life and convinced that a fabric vendor named Gaëlle, one of the town’s privileged class, could provide it. “This is what he wanted more than anything for his daughter: a lack of cruelty, a feeling of safety, but also love. Benevolence and sympathy too, but mostly love.” Loving Claire, he thinks, means parting from her.
But when, on Claire’s seventh birthday, Gaëlle finally says yes, the child disappears.
The imperative to do right by the next generation is at the center of Danticat’s tale, set in the fictional town she sketched in “Krik? Krak!,” her 1995 collection of linked stories about Haitian life. Here Ville Rose gets a fuller portrait, even as we sense impending doom: The book shifts backward and forward over a decade, but our last glimpse of the town is in 2009, only months before the earthquake that devastated Haiti — and, we imagine, would have wiped out gentle Nozias and all of his neighbors.
“Claire of the Sea Light” is not set at a moment of particular political peril; there are no refugees piling into leaking boats, no families fleeing brutal bands of soldiers. The danger Danticat shows us is plentiful in the everyday: the sea that drowns a fisherman as the novel begins, the gangs that rule by bloodshed, the droit du seigneur that results in a maid named Flore bearing the child of one of the town’s wealthy young men, Maxime Ardin Jr. Raping her had been his way of proving his manhood to his father, one of the town’s most respected citizens.
The question of how to be a man pulses through the book. Nozias struggles with it in his seesawing impulses about what’s best for Claire. Max Jr., packed off to Miami by his father on the news of Flore’s pregnancy, still hasn’t figured out the answer when he returns for a visit 10 years later to meet his son, who’s old enough by then to be wondering, too.
Danticat’s language is unadorned, but she uses it to forge intricate connections. The story she tells, in eight easily stand-alone chapters, stealthily gains in depth and cumulative power, and her tone stays calm, whether she is narrating beauty or horror.
The dexterity of her sympathy is an even match for her unflinching vision, which is at its most brutal in a blood-boiling chapter about Max Jr.’s friend, Bernard. Young and idealistic, he lives with his parents in a slum called Cité Pendue, where the family restaurant owes its prosperity to its gang-member clientele. “Bernard imagined himself becoming the kind of radio journalist who’d talk about what he preferred to call the ‘geto,’ from the inside.” He wants to help the nation understand the gang members, to “know what makes these men cry.”
But Bernard has no inkling of how casually the gang leader, Tiye, will ensnare him in a lethal mess, or how credulous the police will be in taking Tiye’s word against his, or how easily he will become a target for vigilante justice. Poor Bernard is a deluded naif, and what befalls him — at the hands of the gang and at the hands of those who arrest him — has clear and sickening parallels well beyond Haiti’s borders.
About Tiye, and about others, too, throughout the novel, a question arises: Who taught him to be that way? More than once, Max Sr., Ville Rose’s schoolmaster, bears some of the blame. So it is sweet, and satisfying, when someone he’s wronged takes revenge by publicizing news of Flore’s rape, the resulting child, and the coverup. As the scandal hits, Max Sr. asks his best friend if he’s heard.
“I heard it,” replies his friend, the town’s mayor and its undertaker, “after meeting with the mother of a young man who got a machete in his gut from a land dispute, so I had some perspective.”
Perspective, it turns out, is what Claire needs on the night she runs away. Nozias, her father, is certain she will come back. We are not so sure. “So much had fallen into the sea,” Danticat writes. And it is dark. And she is only 7.