Although 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.