Claire of the Sea Light
Edwidge Danticat’s new novel is haunted by ghosts and grief, lifted by magic and love, all revolving around a 7-year-old girl.
Claire of the Sea Light is the name of both book and girl, a name given her by her mother, also called Claire, early in her pregnancy. She and her husband, fisherman Nozias Faustin, take his boat out to sea one night, and she surprises him by slipping into the water:
“[H]e saw what she had swum out to observe. Surrounding her was a dazzling glow. It was as though her patch of sea were being lit from below. From her perfectly round breasts down, she was in the middle of a school of tiny silver fish. …”
But even in that moment, Nozias thinks of the goddess of the sea, “the last thing most fishermen saw before they died at sea, her arms the first thing they slipped into.” For him and for all the novel’s characters, love and death are inextricably entangled.
This is Danticat’s fifth work of fiction for adult readers. (She’s published four books for younger ones, as well as three nonfiction works.) Like all of them since her acclaimed first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, this one is set in her native Haiti. She first came to the United States as a child and now lives in Miami, but her ties with that tragic and beautiful country remain strong.
Claire of the Sea Light opens on the girl’s seventh birthday — a day that has always combined celebration with mourning, since her mother died giving birth to her. Her father adores her, but he struggles to make even the barest living, and going out to sea each day makes it tough to raise a child. So Nozias is in agonized negotiations with one of the few well-off people in the town of Ville Rose to adopt Claire, allowing him to leave in search of a better life.
It’s a common pattern in perennially impoverished Haiti — Danticat’s parents left her and her brother with relatives, going in search of good jobs and bringing their children to New York City to live several years later.
Gaelle Lavaud, the fabric shop owner who Nozias hopes will adopt his daughter, doesn’t have those kinds of financial worries, but she bears other losses. Not only is she a widow, but her own beloved daughter died several years before — on Claire’s fourth birthday. Gaelle has refused Nozias’ offer before but keeps coming back to it, hoping the girl might fill the hole in her heart.
Little Claire figures out what they are proposing and runs away. As the search for her goes on, Danticat takes the reader deep into the town’s past and the intricate connections among its people.
We learn the backstory of Claire’s mother, who came from the country and took a job working for the town’s undertaker and mayor, Albert Vincent. She washes and dresses the dead, seeing it as not just a job but an act of respect and tenderness. Nozias jokes that “he was the only man she liked who wasn’t dead,” but theirs is a love match.
Vincent’s best friend, and another powerful man in Ville Rose, is Max Ardin Senior, who runs a school and conducts a rather busy romantic life. Then there is his son, Max Junior, who at 19 is just beginning to find himself. Max works at a local radio station with idealistic Bernard Dorien, who dreams of becoming a crusading journalist.
When the senior Ardin discovers his son has impregnated the family’s maid, Max Junior is exiled to Miami. Bernard’s fate will be much worse.
Some of those connections will be revealed on Claire’s birthday, when Max Junior will return and meet his son for the first time — and that son’s mother, Flore Voltaire, will sit for an interview on a confessional radio show conducted by Louise George, another person with power and secrets of her own.
Danticat paints each of her characters and their town with vivid detail and lyrical language. The book’s plot unfolds not in a straight line but like the petals of a rose, stories one within another, each connected. Claire of the Sea Light is at times a heartbreaking book, but like the child whose name it bears, it is lit with its own inextinguishable glow.