Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea LightAlthough marketed as a novel, Edwidge Danticat’s newest book reads more like a collection of linked stories. Each of the stories could stand almost entirely on its own, but together, the stories are more powerful than they would be apart.

The opening story tells of a 7-year-old girl named Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin whose mother died when she was born and whose father is now trying to send her to a new home with the wealthy cloth vendor, Madame Gaëlle. But Claire disappears before the move can be finalized, and the book turns to other characters in the seaside town of Ville Rose in Haiti. Everyone in the town seems to know everyone else, and the local radio station, with its gossipy talk shows, shapes much of town life.

In each chapter, we get to know a different character and often come to see with fresh eyes situations previously depicted. The stories are not presented in chronological order, so the book jumps around in time. Often, events depicted in a later chapter transform the reader’s understanding of an earlier one. In that respect, the stories depend on each other for their power. Together, they also allow readers to see many different ways of coping with death and loss. There’s no single Haitian way. These characters are individual, and so are there stories.

Still, although I can see how the combination of perspectives makes each story more powerful, I found myself unable to engage with the book as a whole. It is, I’m sorry to say, one of those dreaded “meh” reads. There was nothing I could put my finger on as a problem, but I couldn’t bring myself to care a great deal about these people. I think the non-chronological order, together with the fragmented nature of the narrative, kept me from feeling immersed in the town’s overall story. I couldn’t keep enough of these people in my mind or watch their development over time. The story felt disjointed, even if the book is thematically coherent with its emphasis on death and loss.

I have read short story collections that I admire quite a lot, so the problem is not that these are stories where I wanted a novel. I think, for me, the issue may be that the book is neither a novel nor a short story collection, and therefore I couldn’t work out how to approach what I was reading. I like Danticat’s writing very much, but I’d be much quicker to recommend her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, over this one.

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11 Responses to Claire of the Sea Light

  1. Hi, Teresa. I read “Claire of the Sea Light” a few months ago, after reading “The Farming of Bones,” also by Dandicat, which I thought was excellent. Maybe Dandicat was taking a break from adult fiction, and writing a sort of serious YA novel with “Claire”? I mean, one which would handle some adult issues, but which would have the lightness of touch that many if not all YA novels have? I do know that I was able to do a post on “The Farming of Bones,” but when it came time to write on “Claire of the Sea Light,” I didn’t feel capable, somehow. I hated to admit that the fragmented structure and the back-and-forth time scheme and the same story part told from different perspectives bothered me: after all, these are all mainstays of the postmodern novel. But somehow, to put them all in the same novel, at least in the way they are put in “Claire,” doesn’t really work for me. I’m glad that someone else found it to be the same for them, and thank you for your review.

    • Sorry, that should be “Danticat.”

    • Teresa says:

      I wish I could figure out why her approach didn’t work for me because, as you say, it’s a common technique, and one I’ve seen used in many books that I liked very much. I think the problem is partly that it’s neither a short story collection nor a novel. Most of the stories don’t stand alone very well, but they aren’t tied together tightly enough to provide the forward momentum of a novel.

      And I, too, am glad to know someone else didn’t love this book. All the reviews I’d seen were raves.

  2. alenaslife says:

    I agree with you Teresa. The components should have worked, but I wasn’t moved.

    • Teresa, I think lots of times when people rave a book that isn’t the best a master can do, it’s really the master in general they’re “raving,” and not so much the individual effort. Alena, I almost wonder about the title itself, “Claire of the Sea Light.” In so many places, sea light seems clear (“claire”), and whitish-silver or silverly-golden, and in the dawns and dusks almost impartial, unemotional, speculative. I don’t mean to be overly poetical, but maybe that’s how she meant her book to be? Divorced from the emotions that should have gone along with the actual events and things she describes? Maybe that’s why you (as well as I) weren’t really moved. It’s a thought, perhaps.

      • alenaslife says:

        It’s a really interesting thought and a deeper thought than I considered. This is another reason I love blogging and the discussions that sometimes happen. Thanks for giving me another angle to think about.

      • Teresa says:

        I think it’s probably true that a lot of the raves were out of love of the author. I can also see how some might have gotten swept up in the language.

  3. I think Danticat’s sentences are lovely, but I think in the last analysis, she and I are just not suited to each other as a writer and reader. I read Breath, Eyes, Memory and started to read this — I dunno. Not enough plot for me.

  4. aartichapati says:

    A book I read recently that was a great collection of interlinked stories (not really a novel at all, though) was by Jabari Asim, A Taste of Honey. Maybe give it a try?

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat (3/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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