Claire of the Sea Light (Danticat)

Claire of the Sea Light 
Edwidge Danticat, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307271792

A stunning new work of fiction that brings us deep into the intertwined lives of a small seaside town where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing.

Claire Limye Lanme—Claire of the Sea Light—is an enchanting child born into love and tragedy in Ville Rose, Haiti. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and on each of her birthdays Claire is taken by her father, Nozias, to visit her mother’s grave. Nozias wonders if he should give away his young daughter to a local shopkeeper, who lost a child of her own, so that Claire can have a better life.

But on the night of Claire’s seventh birthday, when at last he makes the wrenching decision to do so, she disappears. As Nozias and others look for her, painful secrets, haunting memories, and startling truths are unearthed among the community of men and women whose individual stories connect to Claire, to her parents, and to the town itself.

Told with piercing lyricism and the economy of a fable, Claire of the Sea Light is a tightly woven, breathtaking tapestry that explores what it means to be a parent, child, neighbor, lover, and friend, while revealing the mysterious bonds we share with the natural world and with one another. Embracing the magic and heartbreak of ordinary life, it is Edwidge Danticat’s most spellbinding, astonishing book yet. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Education—B.A., Barnard College; M.F.A., Brown University
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in New York City

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American novelist and short-story writer. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she was two years old when her father Andre immigrated to New York, to be followed two years later by her mother Rose. This left Danticat and her younger brother, also named Andre, to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Although her formal education in Haiti was in French, she spoke Kreyol at home.

Early years
While still in Haiti, Danticat began writing at 9 years old. At the age of 12, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, to join her parents in a heavily Haitian American neighborhood. As an immigrant teenager, Edwidge's disorientation in her new surroundings was a source of discomfort for her, and she turned to literature for solace.

Two years later she published her first writing in English, "A Haitian-American Christmas: Cremace and Creole Theatre," in New Youth Connections, a citywide magazine written by teenagers. She later wrote another story about her immigration experience for the same magazine, "A New World Full of Strangers". In the introduction to Starting With I, an anthology of stories from the magazine, Danticat wrote, “When I was done with the [immigration] piece, I felt that my story was unfinished, so I wrote a short story, which later became a book, my first novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory…Writing for New Youth Connections had given me a voice. My silence was destroyed completely, indefinitely.”

After graduating from Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, New York, Danticat entered Barnard College in New York City. Initially she had intended on studying to become a nurse, but her love of writing won out and she received a BA in French literature in translation. In 1993, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Brown University—her thesis, entitled "My turn in the fire—an abridged novel," was the basis for her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was published by Soho Press in 1994. Four years later it became an Oprah's Book Club selection.

Since completing her MFA, Danticat has taught creative writing at the New York University and the University of Miami. She has also worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme, on projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haïti. Her short stories have appeared in over 25 periodicals and have been anthologized several times. Her work has been translated into numerous other languages, including French, Korean, German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Danticat is a strong advocate for issues affecting Haitians abroad and at home. In 2009, she lent her voice and words to Poto Mitan: Haitian Women Pillars of the Global Economy, a documentary about the impact of globalization on five women from different generations.

Edwidge Danticat is married to Fedo Boyer. She has two daughters, Mira and Leila.

Books and Awards

  • 1994 - Breath, Eyes, Memory (novel)—Granta's Best Young American Novelists; Super Flaiano Prize
  • 1996 - Krik? Krak! (stories)
  • 1998 - The Farming of Bones (novel)—American Book Award
  • 2002 - Behind the Mountains (young adult novel)
  • 2002 - After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (travel book)
  • 2004 - The Dew Breaker (novel-in-stories) The Story Prize
  • 2005 - Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 (young adult novel)
  • 2007 - Brother, I'm Dying (memoir/social criticis ) National Book Critics Circle Award; Dayton Literary Peace Prize
  • 2010 - Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (essay collection,) OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature
  • 2011 - Tent Life: Haiti (essay contributor)
  • 2011 - Haiti Noir (anthology editor)
  • 2011 - Best American Essays, 2011 (anthology editor)
  • 2013 - Claire of the Sea Light (novel)

 (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/15/13.)

Book Reviews
The images in Edwidge Danticat's haunting new novel…have the hard precision and richly saturated colors of a woodblock print or folk art painting…[T]his book uses overlapping tales to create an elliptical but propulsive narrative…There is something fablelike about these tales; the reader is made acutely aware of the patterns of loss and redemption, cruelty and vengeance that thread their way through these characters' lives, and the roles that luck and choice play in shaping their fate…Writing with lyrical economy and precision, Ms. Danticat recounts her characters' stories in crystalline prose that underscores the parallels in their lives.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

At first, I resisted what appeared to be the fablelike delicacy of…Claire of the Sea Light. Was it going to be too precious? Would [Danticat's] lyricism camouflage or ennoble Haiti's life-or-death struggles? But it quickly became apparent that her hypnotic prose was perfectly suited to its setting, the tragic and yet magical seaside town of Ville Rose…In and out of bedrooms, graveyards, restaurants and bars, even the local radio station, Danticat creates rich and varied interior lives for her characters.
Deborah Sontag - New York Times Book Review

[I]n her rich new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, Danticat continues to speak in a captivating whisper. Claire of the Sea Light [is] a collection of episodes that build on one another, enriching our understanding of a small Haitian town and the complicated community of poor and wealthy, young and old, who call it home. From the first page to the last covers only a single day, but Danticat dips into the past to illuminate the recurring coincidence of life and death among these people.... The apparently disparate parts of the story knit together in surprising ways that seem utterly right.... One of Danticat’s most entrancing talents is her ability to capture conflicted feelings with a kind of aching sympathy.... Danticat has perfected a style of extraordinary restraint and dignity that can convey tremendous emotional impact. But in celebration of Claire, the life force of this novel, she delivers a kind of incantation that repels the rising tide of despair.... That’s a tall order for a name—or a novel. But it’s not beyond Danticat’s power.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Rising above the sea, Ville Rose is a place of immense beauty and overwhelming poverty, and where only the very few live comfortably . . . The imperative to do right by the next generation is at the center of Danticat’s tale, set in the fictional town she sketched in Krik? Krak!, [which] here gets a fuller portrait.... The book shifts backward and forward over a decade but is not set at a moment of particular peril; the danger Danticat shows us is plentiful in the everyday: the sea that drowns a fisherman, the gangs that rule by bloodshed, the droit du seigneur that results in a maid bearing the child of one of the town’s wealthy young men . . . Danticat’s language is unadorned, but she uses it to forge intricate connections—the story stealthily gains in depth and cumulative power. The dexterity of Danticat’s sympathy is an even match for her unflinching vision.
Laura Collins-Hughes - Boston Globe

In Danticat’s luminous new novel, the search for [a] missing 7 year-old girl serves as a way of re-examining what we overlook and undervalue in life. Set on a single day, Danticat tells the story through a kaleidoscope of perspectives that illuminate life in the island nation where the roles of ex-pats, gangs, radio journalists and shopkeepers crisscross the landscape. In a voice tuned to the frequency of sorrow, with a calmness that neither apologizes nor inflames, [Danticat] lays out the terrible choice that many in Haiti have faced: Keep a child in deepest poverty or offer the child to someone with better prospects.... Danticat is a beautiful storyteller who doesn’t shy from the brutalities...but she also applies a finely tuned sensibility to the beauty that surrounds the pain.... The search [for Claire] provides the vehicle to examine the lives of the perpetually unseen, the less-than, the lost. In the final chapter, we see the story through [Claire’s] eyes with an unexpected burst of clarity that wows the reader. The day comes to an end in much the same place where it started. But the village—and readers—are changed. Danticat’s determination to face both light and dark brings the story to life. But her skill as a writer makes the balancing act a pure pleasure to read.... A remarkably well-plotted combination of mystery and social critique.
Amy Driscoll - Miami Herald

Fiercely beautiful.... Ville Rose is a fictional place, but it’s described here with the precision and detail of a work of literary.... The landscape of Ville Rose is as rich and varied as the Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.... Danticat is a prose stylist with great compassion and insight. And by shifting seamlessly in time and point of view, the sensational turns in her novel quickly lead us back to people who are struggling with concerns that are all too real. Danticat’s characters are caught between the hurt a poor country can inflict on its citizens, and the love those citizens feel for their birthplace.... Claire of the Sea Light brims with enchantments and surprises. Danticat finds a way, in the book’s final pages, to convincingly bring her diverse cast of back to the Ville Rose seaside on the same fateful night at which the novel opens. That final feat of writing brilliance brings Claire of the Sea Light to a place few novels reach: an ending that is at once satisfying and full of mystery.... Impressive.
Hector Tobar - Los Angeles Times

Gorgeous, arresting, profoundly vivid.... Danticat once again tells a story that feels as mysterious and magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel.... The book begins on the morning of [Claire's] birthday, before winding back to tell the story of every previous birthday, and who lived, and died, each year. For some time, Claire’s father has considered giving her [away], and the heartbreaking question of Claire’s fate adds to the novel’s suspense, as both the past, and this single day, unfold.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) A new offering from National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Danticat is always cause for celebration. She has the ability to conjure up the rarified air of Haiti as she manages to pull tightly at one's heartstrings; this novel is no exception. Highly recommended. —Susanne Wells, Indianapolis
Library Journal

[M]otivations are never simple in Danticat's nuanced presentation. Her prose has the shimmering simplicity of a folk tale and the same matter-of-fact acceptance of life's cruelties and injustices. Yet, despite the unsparing depiction of a corrupt society in which the police are as brutal and criminal as gang members, there's tremendous warmth in Danticat's treatment of her characters, who are striving for human connection in a hard world. Both lyrical and cleareyed, a rare and welcome combination
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The opening chapter of Claire of the Sea Light moves backward chronologically through each of Claire’s birthdays, ultimately returning to the present day of the narrative. How does this structure contribute to the book’s sense of time overall, and to its weaving of past and present as more characters are introduced?

2. What does it mean that Albert Vincent is both the town of Ville Rose’s undertaker and its mayor? How are these dual roles reflected in his relationship with Claire Narcis, Nozias’s wife and Claire’s mother, when she works for him preparing bodies for burial?

3. That Claire visits her mother’s grave on her birthdays brings poignantly to the fore the notion that life and death are intertwined. In what other ways does that happen in the book? Do ghosts—or chime—have a positive or negative influence over the living?

4. The sea both opens and closes the book, offering powerful images of its destructive and restorative force: the fisherman Caleb is drowned at the book’s beginning when “a wall of water rise[s] from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue” (3), and at the book’s end, Max Junior is spat back from the sea that had “taken [him] this morning” (237). What roles does the sea play in the fates of all the characters in the book? What other myths, stories, and fables come to your mind by this book’s evocation of water?

5. At one point in the story, Nozias recalls another watery scene, when he and wife Claire Narcis went night fishing, and Claire slipped into the moonlit water to observe a school of shimmering fish. It is from this moment that their daughter, and Danticat’s book, get their name. How does this important memory shape your impression of Claire Narcis, including in what we learn about her by the book’s conclusion?

6. The relationships between parents and children take many forms in the book’s three main families. Claire and Nozias remain at the center, showing how both parent and child experience joy and fear, trust and wariness. How is this theme expanded upon by bonds between Max Sr. and Max Junior, Max. Junior and Pamaxime, Madame Gaelle and Rose, and even Odile and Henri? In each of these, who, if any, suffers more: parent or child?

7. Madame Gaelle’s story (“The Frogs,” 41) opens with a description of a sudden explosion of frogs that has plagued Ville Rose, which her husband Laurent explains “is surely a sign that something more terrible is going to happen” (44). The smell of the frogs’ corpses at first nauseates the pregnant Gaelle, yet the act of putting a frog in her mouth seems to save her baby from risk. How does this miracle, along with the simultaneous death of Laurent, reflect the town’s mythic culture and one woman’s sense of her fate?

8. Much of the lyricism and power of Claire of the Sea Light derives from the descriptions of its Haitian setting: of the sea, the mountains, the flowers, the “sparkly feathers from angel wings” that Claire searches for after her waking dreams (236). Would the book work in any other place, either in the Caribbean or beyond? How might things change if so?

9. Although this is fiction, Danticat vividly evokes present-day Haitian culture and society, including its poverty (5), gangs, and restavèk children—the child-servitude that Nozias fears for Claire. How do these realities affect your reading of the book and the sense of authenticity of Claire’s story? Of Bernard’s?

10. The radio is a major form of communicating stories throughout the novel, and the radio station is a place where confessions and revelations are spoken, but also where betrayals, and even murder, occur. Why do you think Danticat chose to set so many key scenes at the radio station? Louise George is the host of a radio show called Di Mwen, which translates to “Tell Me.” Does honest speech come more naturally in this medium where the speaker’s face is hidden? In what ways is Danticat’s book in and of itself like a radio show?

11. Claire of the Sea Light is rich with secrets: of paternity, of sexual identity, of crimes, of lies that unfold in the course of the narrative. How do the multiple voices of the book help withhold the truth, yet also expose it at key moments? In what cases does not knowing the entire truth of a situation—such Nozias’s plan to have a vasectomy, Max Junior’s love for Bernard, and Albert Vincent’s for Claire Narcis—hurt or protect the person keeping the secret, and the person from whom the truth is kept?

12. Danticat chooses to tell her story through multiple voices and points of view, which provides the reader with a kaleidoscopic view of the past. How does this also affect the book’s presentation of memory, and of our ability to shape certain memories that may not be our own?

13. In the scene where Nozias leaves his goodbye letter for Claire with Madame Gaelle, both characters seem to hesitate in their willingness to participate in Nozias’s decision to leave. How do their interactions in this moment reflect their unique understandings of their responsibilities, and also of death and the future? What makes Nozias turn to Gaëlle in particular, and what motivates Gaelle to take in a new daughter after she’s lost her own? Is money the most important thing to have, in raising a child, in offering him or her security and love?

14. Although Claire Limye Lanme is the book’s fulcrum, her point of view does not appear until the final chapter. Does it seem that Claire accepts her fate and her father’s decision? How does placing those other stories before Claire’s affect your feelings about her in the final scene? What do you imagine will happen to Claire in the future?

15. The choice Nozias faces—whether or not to leave his child in the care of another—is one that many real parents in Haiti struggle with today. Does this knowledge change your understanding of the book, or your sympathies with Nozias? What would you do if you were in Nozias’s position?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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