2. A book written in Central America/Caribbean: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
List Progress: 26/30
Atmosphere and texture can do so much to elevate a novel. Claire of the Sea Light, a 2013 novel by Haitain author Edwidge Danticat, feels lush and rich, showing all of the nuances of the small coastal town of Ville Rose. The plot is a bit thin, more of a character study of a population than an actual narrative, but that study has so much detail that it feels well worth spending the time with.
Fisherman Nozias is a single father to seven-year-old Claire, after losing her mother in childbirth. He has long feared what would happen to Claire if he dies, and when another fisherman is drowned in a freak accident, Nozias decides to give her up to live as a maid/adoptive daughter to a wealthy widow. Claire panics at the prospect of being separated from her father and runs away. But rather than stick with this inciting incident, Claire of the Sea Light uses it as a jumping-off point to go back and forth across the history of Ville Rose. The stories start closely related, beginning with how Nozias met Claire’s mother, then branch out to the wealthy widow, the radio station her husband patronized, the gangsters involved in her husband’s shooting, one of the radio hosts, the esteemed local school founder, the founder’s son, and the housemaid who lived in their home. Each branch and new focal character adds shades and details to the stories that came before it, until a delicate and full picture of Ville Rose is painted.
But the downside of branching out that far is that trees don’t come back together at the top. The conclusion of the novel finishes a few of the established stories and arcs, but there have been enough other threads established that it ends up feeling incomplete, with some stories just trailing off into the distance. It is a fine balance to try and find: giving a holistic view of the community without spending so much time with each character that they feel like a protagonist, with the same narrative demands that a protagonist’s story has.
One of the most effective and hard-hitting aspects of Claire of the Sea Light, at least for an American reader, is Danticat’s bluntness around the environmental state of Haiti. Nozias is a fisherman who is forced to watch the oceans he lives by dwindle and suffer due to pollution; he and the others know they are over-fishing what little there is left, but they have no choice in order to survive. The somewhat-wealthy people, like the widow fabric merchant, can move homes when the river by their first house fills with dying frogs, and the even wealthier like the school founder send their children off to live and study in Miami, away from the immediate effects of environmental disasters. But Nozias and Claire live next to and survive off of the ocean, so they feel everything.
Claire of the Sea Light is an immersive character experience to sink into, and readers will feel like they know Ville Rose inside and out by the end. The beats of a conventional narrative are not always followed, sometimes to the book’s detriment, but it clearly knows its strengths.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.