Claire of The Sea Light is an ensnaring, beautiful, and evocative novel by Hatian-American author Edwidge Danticat. I was immediately drawn into the narrative by the first paragraph, and did not put it down until I was done, four hours later. Claire of the Sea Light is less about the titular character and more about the intersecting lives of members of a small seaside town/village in Haiti, Ville Rose. It’s also about the legacies parents leave their children, in both presence and absence.
Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustian’s mother died the day Claire was born, a loss both her and her father have carried for years. At the open of the novel, the town’s wealthy fabric shop owner, Gaëlle, has just decided, finally, that she will take Claire and adopt her, as her father has been hoping she would for several years. He wants Claire to have a better life than what he, a poor fisherman living in a shack by the sea, can give her and this is the only way he knows how. Just when Gaëlle accepts Claire, Claire disappears. That this happens in the first chapter provides the reader with a great impetus to keep reading, even as new characters are introduced seemingly out of nowhere. What follows is a portrait of a town and its varied but connected inhabitants. We do not return to the night that Claire disappears until the final chapter, but readers who skip ahead just to find out what happens will miss out on all of the nuances of emotion and characters that lead to what happens on the beach that night. In other words, they will miss out on what makes this such a beautiful and engrossing novel.
If at at first the novel seems more like a collection of loosely related short stories, the reader should keep reading. It becomes more and more obvious that the town is a character like the others, and it is what binds them all together. However, perhaps because of this, the coalescence of characters and events is less coherent than one might like. One of the story lines I was most interested in was simply dropped, and in the end, the reader is left not knowing the fates of characters she has been invited to invest quite a bit of emotion in. But that is the purview of fiction showing lives in progress, lives that are unfinished or only just begun. Like the radio show Louise George hosts, Danticat shows us the moments where people’s lives change for the better or worse, and leaves us with the hope that everything will turn out all right for these people whose stories we have come to love.
Danticat’s writing is precise but not spare, and highly evocative. In one paragraph, she conjures Ville Rose with master strokes of description and detail. It takes other authors pages, sometimes chapters, to accomplish what Danticat does in a single paragraph. Critics have compared her style in this novel to that of a fable, but I’m not sure I agree. Her writing is timeless, as are her themes, but there is also a slow yet perpetual movement that comes across more strongly than that of the staid fables she sometimes invokes. It is the choices that these characters make that propel them forward or let them slip backward in their circumstances. While reading, I was reminded of Behn Zeitlin’s quietly amazing film Beasts of the Southern Wild because of the tenderness, frankness, and pride with which Danticat simultaneously treats and gives to her characters. Both the movie and Danticat’s novel deal with issues of pride, place, family, poverty, death, circumstance, and the legacies parents leave their children.
I have not read any of Danticat’s other work. I know it will be different in some respects, but if all of her writing is as lush and evocative as Claire of The Sea Light, I can’t wait to start reading. This is one of the best novels I have read this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.