“No one will ever love you more than you love your pain,” Madame Gaëlle, the main protagonist in Edwidge Danticat’s “Claire of the Sea Light,” is told after her daughter’s death. Narrated in a precise yet lyrical prose, this book is a powerful work that confronts the ugly face of life. While focusing mostly on life and death, this book explores several other universal themes as well, such as social and gender inequality, economic injustice, and political corruption. Although overwhelming at times because of so many themes and interwoven stories, the book manages to resonate hauntingly through its unsparing message—that life does go on, but not without its scars.
Set in Ville Rose, a fictional town in Haiti where streets are called épines, or thorns, the novel begins at an intersection: on the little girl Claire’s seventh birthday, her poor fisherman father, Nozias, must decide if he will give her away to Gaëlle, a wealthy fabric vendor who can afford to raise a child. But after discovering Nozias’ plan, Claire runs away from home. Danticat uses this crisis as a platform to delve into other characters and their tangential relationships. We soon find out that Gaëlle has had her fair share of misfortunes as well. She lost her husband to a gang shooting on the day that her own daughter was born. She bribes corrupt police officers to exact her revenge, only for it to be to on an innocent person. Later, she becomes romantically involved with Max Senior, whose son is the actual culprit. Meanwhile, Max Junior recently discovered that he had a son, born after he raped his family’s servant Flore. Flore vents out her resentment at a local radio station, which is run by Max Senior’s estranged lover. The plot, though it offers room for multiple themes, is long-winded and circuitous.
But Danticat’s subtle interweaving of the plot in a cyclical pattern, which mirrors the circle of life about which she is writing, both compensates for the plot’s tangles and frequent changes in perspective and emphasizes the book’s message of renewal after injuries of the past. Claire’s mother dies while giving birth to Claire. Madame Gaëlle’s husband is murdered on the day that Madame Gaëlle gives birth to their daughter. Max Junior’s son is conceived on the day that his friend, Bernard, is murdered. It is not coincidental that the mayor of the town also maintains a funeral business. The book carefully threads this pattern of loss and redemption in two ways: an individual cycle for a character in each of the eight chapters and a broader one for the town of Ville Rose in two sections, the first of which addresses death and the latter renewal. As the characters are haunted by the ghosts of the past even as they move on, the overall effect is a collage that emphasizes the cyclical nature of life. Claire returns back into the plot and to her home at the very end of the book, not knowing what will happen to her—a poignant end that befits this book.
In addition to the intricate structure, Danticat’s expressive yet objective prose elevates this book’s message from a mere cliché to a touching lesson. As she moves through the story, her voice is precise and journalistic: “Louise George, hostess of the radio program Di Mwen, had been coughing up blood during her periods ever since she began menstruating at age thirteen.” No matter the context, Danticat maintains a sense of distance. Yet this removal also gives power to the passages that depict pain: “Even though he visited the gravesite regularly, Nozias always felt the same rush of pain, almost like being punched in the heart, each time he was there.” The economy of prose imparts a sense of blunt truth to her message that the readers are forced to confront.
As much as “Claire of the Sea Light” is a significant work, however, Danticat injects too many other themes for her cyclical world to be as profound as it could be. Hovering around Ville Rose is the disparity between the affluent and the poor, many of whom belong to gangs, or “chimeras.” Madame Gaëlle’s troubles involve political and police corruption, while Max Junior and Senior’s misdeeds show clear misogyny. These themes, which could merit a book of their own, were only tangentially touched upon. At times, it feels as if Danticat arranged the characters to fit the themes, as opposed to letting the characters flesh out the themes themselves.
Despite its shortcomings, “Claire of the Sea Light” is a moving novel that grimly reflects how people, while resilient, also come with remnants of pain from the past. Even if the pain seems to be too much at times, life still goes on: “Her losses had not made her stronger; they had made her weak…. She didn’t want to continue being weak, but she didn’t want to die either. She was too eager to see what would come next…. She was both hungry for life and terrified of it.”
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