Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
New York. Knopf. 2013. ISBN 9780307271792
Max Ardin Sr., the suspiciously high-minded schoolmaster in Claire of the Sea Light, says something memorable about life’s painful separations when he tells the part-time teacher and sometimes lover whose dismissal from both roles he has just cleverly, discretely effected: “You’re like a starfish, constantly in need of a piece of yourself breaking off and walking away in order to become something new.”
Another way of looking at separation, Edwidge Danticat’s signature theme, is the attitude expressed by the novel’s titular Claire. Early in the fiction, the seven-year-old disappears into hiding rather than let herself be given away by her hard-pressed, widowed fisherman father to a widow with space in her life for a daughter. Suspended unhelpfully between these two divergent attitudes are the half-dozen or so Ville Rose residents whom we meet, mostly, while the runaway Claire is in hiding, resisting separation from her father.
In a chapter called “Frogs,” we meet the widow as she was ten years before. For most of that year, Gaëlle was pregnant, albeit ambivalently so. Against her husband’s and her doctor’s advice, she had refused the abortion that would separate her from her ominously cysted fetus. Yet on the very threshold of the baby’s birth, she walked alone in the swamp that surrounded her home, listened to the year’s diseased generation of singing frogs until, finally, she ate one. “Let them fight it out and see who will win,” she says of the frog and of the baby whose life she had just imperiled and whose separation from herself she clearly, on some unacknowledged psychological level, desired.
We also meet the schoolmaster’s son, Max Junior, a young man unable to complete the separation from his home island that began some ten years before when, having raped his father’s housekeeper and begotten a child, his father sent him to Miami to live with his mother. However, the woman he has most promisingly met in Florida has described to him the feelings of abandonment that she endured for the whole of her life because she grew up in a fatherless household, grew up understanding her father’s absence as a desertion. Her story causes Max Junior to think of his unclaimed son back in Haiti, to call a halt to his Miami life, and to return to Belle Rose. There, pathetically, he collides with his son’s mother’s abhorrence of him for having raped her, into her unwillingness to relinquish the child, and into the unprofessed homosexuality that is his muddled life’s source of vexation.
While the runaway Claire remains in hiding, these and the rest of the novel’s character ensemble circle dolefully about, employing and observing Danticat’s signature tropes for the undervoiced Haitian people’s dire-straits desire to be heard (also, for her own authorial determination to give them voice): radio stations, lighthouses, sign language, butterflies (whose fate is to be immemorially/memorially both mute and beautiful), and wonns (a Haitian children’s singing game similar to the English “Ring a-ring o’ Roses”).
Claire of the Sea Light is not Danticat’s best work. Too many of the novel’s pages roil in her characters’ disconsolate ruminations. Still, the fiction holds because its chief suspense—concern for the runaway child and curiosity about what she will do—holds. Also, it ends brilliantly. To tell you the ending would spoil the novel, so I won’t do that. I will only say that when life challenges Claire to act, the child does so decisively and without complaint. She runs in the sea’s light, also hope’s light.