This is another one of those books which is so pleasant that it’s almost too easy to ignore the silent tragedy hidden in its words. Claire of the Sea Light is a relatively short book by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat (who must have the most marvellous name ever) which centres around Claire’s seventh birthday, the day her father finally gives her away and the day she runs away.
Claire Limyè Lamnè Faustin is a ‘revenan’, a child whose birth coincided with her mother’s death. For a time she lived in the mountains with her mother’s family, but eventually her father, Nozias, a fisherman, brings her back to Ville Rose. Since then he had been trying to give her away, to give her to someone who could give her a better life and so he could pursue his own. Fishing is dangerous, only on the morning of Claire’s seventh birthday a seasoned fisherman, Caleb, was swallowed by a giant wave. Nozias worries about what will happen to Claire if the same thing happens to him.
The story flows from the point where Madam Gaëlle, the fabric shop owner, agrees, finally, to take Claire. Claire goes into her father’s shack to collect her few things and disappears. From that point weaves a story like a complex tapestry, as each person touched by Claire’s disappearance has their story revealed. What follows is a stream of tragic stories: Gaëlle who lost her husband and daughter; Bernard a talented young man who works at a radio station who loses his life on account of the gangs; Maxime, son of the school master who is banished to Miami and returns many years later to find himself confronted with a son, Louise the talk show host who is humiliated and abandoned by the school master and of course the story of Claire and her mother and father and how her name came to be.
In many ways Claire of the Sea Light reminded me of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I read last year, but somehow this book is less obvious and flashy, and in many ways less nihilistic. The stories unravel gently, like a meandering stream, and they are soulful and heart-warming, they show a people who hold love, or in some cases the lack of it, at the centre of their being. It is a lovely book to read, and yet at the same time it is terribly sad; it is easy to forget amongst the every-day trials and tribulations that these are a people living in desperate poverty. This is most revealed in the story of Claire and Nozias in which it is apparent that the only reason he wants to give Claire away is to keep her safe, being fearful of what will happen to her if something happened to him. It was no lack of love that drove him to this activity. And yet Claire herself, wise little Claire, is the one who sees most clearly how pointless this is, how what the only thing her father cannot give to her is her mother:
“She wondered whether her mother would have been able to do what her father was doing, if she would have had the courage to give her away like this, to someone else. She knew of both fathers and mothers, fishing families, who had given their children, both girls and boys away. They had taken their children to distant relatives in the capital to work as restavèks, child maids or houseboys. Others had taken their children to the white people at Sainte Thérèse and the white people had put the children in orphanages. Some of those children were taken to the capital and other places and were never seen or heard from again. They became other people’s children in other lands that they’d never even known existed.”
Through Claire’s, and others’, eyes Dandicat gently shows us many things: the terrible reality of poverty, how gang culture appears, the brutality of the police, the tragedy of losing a child, the impact of migration and how it affects the people who leave and return, rape culture and sexual violence towards poor women, the tenuousness of life in Haiti where people have to give up their children as an act of love and protection. There’s a lot of depth to this seemingly simple story, beautifully told, and it will stay with me for a long time to come. I'm fairly confident that this will be the first of many books by Edwidge Dandicat that I'll be reading.
Claire of the Sea Light receives a magical 9 out of 10 Biis.