Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea Light

4.1 26
by Edwidge Danticat

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From the best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying and The Dew Breaker: 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 Limyè Lanmè—Claire of the Sea Light—is an enchanting child born

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From the best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying and The Dew Breaker: 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 Limyè Lanmè—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.

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Editorial Reviews

Reading the fiction of Edwidge Danticat is like falling into conversation with a smiling, mild-mannered stranger who, in a softly melodious voice, tells you things that shock you to the core. Ever since the publication of her first novel — and most particularly in her later ones — Danticat has quietly yet insistently forced her readers to contemplate the harsh and exquisite world of her native Haiti, lulling us with the spare, rhythmical grace of her language while denying us any sense of smugness or relief. Her lyrical style lets neither character nor reader off the hook; rather it embeds the hook even deeper. The title of Danticat's finest novel, for example, The Dew Breaker, seems to be just another poetic phrase. Until you learn that the term was used in Haiti to describe the Tontons Macoute killers who would habitually arrive "before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves" to steal away their victims. Thus language drapes horror in beauty.

In Claire of the Sea Light, an incidental yet memorable character, young Flore Voltaire, who was raped and impregnated by her employer's son, remains fascinated by that same trickster, beauty. "She found it as resilient as wozo, the colorful weeds and wildflowers that grew, despite being regularly trampled, in the muck beside rivers and back roads," Danticat writes. "She believed that even the poorest and unhappiest of women could fight heartache with beauty, with bright or muted kerchiefs-and talcum-powdered necks." Danticat, of course, knows better. She has a clear, unblinking eye for heartache. Yet she also describes how another character, when employed to wash and dress the dead, would sometimes "apply special perfumes, sneak in a pair of socks or stockings of her own choosing, though the dead were never to have shoes. Shoes could only weigh a person down in the afterlife." The power of this deceptively simple novel resides in such details.

"The morning Claire Limye Lanme Faustin turned seven," the novel opens, "a freak wave, measuring between ten and twelve feet high, was seen in the ocean outside of Ville Rose." Claire's father, a fisherman, sees "a wall of water rise from the depth of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick the pink sky." He also sees his best friend swept away. This happens in May 2009. The opening chapter, however, has the rhythm of ancient incantation, with passages beginning "The day Claire Limye Lanme turned six....," "The day Claire Limye Lanme turned five," and so on, unspooling to the day of Claire's birth (although that, in circular fashion, comes later). Claire knows that "giving birth to her, her mother had died. So her birthday was also a day of death, and the freak wave and the dead fisherman proved that it never ceased to be." Indeed, the novel ends with a different man, from a different world, being dragged out of the waves as Claire looks on.

Before that happens, Danticat artfully sets a handful of other lives — and deaths — in motion, each overlapping the next or looping back to the former in a graceful, intricate dance. "Every few feet offered a glimpse of some private act," Danticat writes of the passersby view into fishermen's shacks at night, and the same is true of this narrative. We first meet Claire's widowed father, Nozias, and through him Galle Lavaud, the fabric vendor whom Nozias has repeatedly asked to take and raise Claire. For Gaelle has a dead husband and a dead daughter. She also has a passionate heart that links her not only to the murder at the center of the novel but also to Haiti's criminal gangs and hired killers. "For a while there were no gang wars, just one gang" Danticat writes of Cite Pendue, "...a destitute and treacherous extension of Ville Rose" where young Bernard Dorien rubs shoulders with gang leaders, joins the police force, and dreams of becoming a radio journalist. His fate, though clear, is one of the novel's biggest jolts. It is linked to the fate of Max Ardin Junior, a privileged son returned from Miami who confronts, with a mixture of terror and longing, a crime from his past — and a secret that defines his present. Each drama is, in essence, a short story. Yet, with the exception of perhaps one diversion too many (into the life of a radio host), Claire of the Sea Light unfolds as a neatly constructed whole; rhapsodic and real.

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

Reviewer: Anna Mundow

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.16(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.03(d)

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Part One
Claire of the Sea Light
The morning Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin turned seven, a freak wave, measuring between ten and twelve feet high, was seen in the ocean outside of Ville Rose. Claire’s father, Nozias, a fisherman, was one of many who saw it in the distance as he walked toward his sloop. He first heard a low rumbling, like that of distant thunder, then saw a wall of water rise from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.
Just as quickly as it had swelled, the wave cracked. Its barrel collapsed, pummeling a cutter called Fifine, sinking it and Caleb, the sole fisherman onboard.
Nozias ran to the edge of the water, wading in to where the tide reached his knees. Lost now was a good friend, whom Nozias had greeted for years as they walked past each other, before dawn, on their way out to sea.
A dozen or so other fishermen were already standing next to Nozias. He looked down the beach at Caleb’s shack, where Caleb’s wife, Fifine—Josephine—had probably returned to bed after seeing him off. Nozias knew from his experience, and could sense it in his bones, that both Caleb and the boat were gone. They might wash up in a day or two, or more likely they never would.
It was a sweltering Saturday morning in the first week of May. Nozias had slept in longer than usual, contemplating the impossible decision he’d always known that he would one day have to make: to whom, finally, to give his daughter.
“Woke up earlier and I would have been there,” he ran back home and tearfully told his little girl.
Claire was still lying on a cot in their single-room shack. The back of her thin nightdress was soaked with sweat. She wrapped her long, molasses-colored arms around Nozias’s neck, just as she had when she was even littler, pressing her nose against his cheek. Some years before, Nozias had told her what had happened on her first day on earth, that giving birth to her, her mother had died. So her birthday was also a day of death, and the freak wave and the dead fisherman proved that it had never ceased to be.
The day Claire Limyè Lanmè turned six was also the day Ville Rose’s undertaker, Albert Vincent, was inaugurated as the new mayor. He kept both positions, leading to all kinds of jokes about the town eventually becoming a cemetery so he could get more clients. Albert was a man of unmatched elegance, even though he had shaky hands. He wore a beige two-piece suit every day, just as he did on the day of his inauguration. His eyes, people said, had not always been the lavender color that they were now. Their clouding, sad but gorgeous, was owing to the sun and early-onset cataracts. On the day of his swearing-in, Albert, shaking hands and all, recited from memory a speech about the town’s history. He did this from the top step of the town hall, a white nineteenth century gingerbread that overlooked a flamboyant-filled piazza, where hundreds of residents stood elbow to elbow in the afternoon sun.
Ville Rose was home to about eleven thousand people, five percent of them wealthy or comfortable. The rest were poor, some dirt-poor. Many were out of work, but some were farmers or fishermen (some both) or seasonal sugarcane workers. Twenty miles south of the capital and crammed between a stretch of the most unpredictable waters of the Caribbean Sea and an eroded Haitian mountain range, the town had a flower-shaped perimeter that, from the mountains, looked like the unfurling petals of a massive tropical rose, so the major road connecting the town to the sea became the stem and was called Avenue Pied Rose or Stem Rose Avenue, with its many alleys and capillaries being called épines, or thorns.
Albert Vincent’s victory rally was held at the town’s center—the ovule of the rose—across from Sainte Rose de Lima Cathedral, which had been repainted a deeper lilac for the inauguration. Albert offered his inaugural address while covering his hands with a black fedora that few had ever seen on his head. On the edge of the crowd, perched on Nozias’s shoulder, Claire Limyè Lanmè was wearing her pink muslin birthday dress, her plaited hair covered with tiny bow shaped barrettes. At some point, Claire noticed that she and her father were standing next to a plump woman with a cherubic face framed with a long, straight hairpiece. The woman was wearing black pants and a black blouse and had a white hibiscus pinned behind her ear. She owned Ville Rose’s only fabric shop.
“Thank you for putting your trust in me,” Albert Vincent now boomed into the crowd. The speech was at last winding down nearly a half hour after he’d begun speaking.
Nozias cupped his hands over his mouth as he whispered something in the fabric vendor’s ear. It was obvious to Claire that her father had not really come to hear the mayor, but to see the fabric vendor.
Later that same evening, the fabric vendor appeared at the shack near the end of Pied Rose Avenue. Claire was expecting to be sent to a neighbor while the fabric vendor stayed alone with her father, but Nozias had insisted that Claire pat her hair down with an old bristle brush and that she straighten out the creases on the ruffled dress that she’d kept on all day despite the heat and sun.
Standing between Nozias’s and Claire’s cots in the middle of the shack, the fabric vendor asked Claire to twirl by the light of the kerosene lamp, which was in its usual place on the small table where Claire and Nozias sometimes ate their meals. The walls of the shack were covered with flaking, yellowed copies of La Rosette, the town’s newspaper, which had been glued to the wood long ago with manioc paste by Claire’s mother. From where she was standing, Claire could see her own stretched-out shadow moving along with the others over the fading words. While twirling for the lady, Claire heard her father say, “I am for correcting children, but I am not for whipping.” He looked down at Claire and paused. His voice cracked, and he jabbed his thumb into the middle of his palm as he continued. “I am for keeping her clean, as you can see. She should of course continue with her schooling, be brought as soon as possible to a doctor when she is sick.” Still jabbing at his palm, after having now switched palms, he added, “In turn, she would help with some cleaning both at home and at the shop.” Only then did Claire realize who this “her” was that they were talking about, and that her father was trying to give her away.
Her legs suddenly felt like lead, and she stopped twirling, and as soon as she stopped, the fabric vendor turned to her father, her fake hair blocking half of her face. Nozias’s eyes dropped from the fabric vendor’s fancy hairpiece to her pricey open-toed sandals and red toenails.
“Not tonight,” the fabric vendor said, as she headed for the narrow doorway.
Nozias seemed stunned, drawing a long breath and letting it out slowly before following the fabric vendor to the door. They thought they were whispering, but Claire could hear them clearly from across the room.
“I’m going away,” Nozias said. “Pou chèche lavi, to look for a better life.”
“Ohmm.” The fabric vendor groaned a warning, like an impossible word, a word she had no idea how to say. “Why would you want your child to be my servant, a restavèk?”
“I know she would never be that with you,” Nozias said. “But this is what would happen anyway, with less kind people than you if I die. I don’t have any more family here in town.”
Nozias put an end to the fabric vendor’s questioning by making a joke about the undertaker’s mayoral victory and how many meaningless speeches he would be forced to endure if he remained in Ville Rose. This made the fabric vendor’s jingly laugh sound as though it were coming out of her nose. The good news, Claire thought, was that her father did not try to give her away every day. Most of the time, he acted as though he would always keep her. During the week, Claire went to the École Ardin, where she received a charity scholarship from the schoolmaster himself, Msye Ardin. And at night, Claire would sit by the kerosene lamp at the small table in the middle of the shack and recite the new words she was learning. Nozias enjoyed the singsong and her hard work and missed it during her holidays from school. The rest of the time, he went out to sea at the crack of dawn and always came back with some cornmeal or eggs, which he’d bartered part of his early-morning catch for. He talked about going to work in construction or the fishing trade in the neighboring Dominican Republic, but he would always make it sound as though it were something he and Claire could do together, not something he’d have to abandon her to do. But as soon as her birthday came, he would begin talking about it again— chèche lavi: going away to make a better life.
Lapèch, fishing, was no longer as profitable as it had once been, she would hear him tell anyone who would listen. It was no longer like in the old days, when he and his friends would put a net in the water for an hour or so, then pull it out full of big, mature fish. Now they had to leave nets in for half a day or longer, and they would pull fish out of the sea that were so small that in the old days they would have been thrown back. But now you had to do with what you got; even if you knew deep in your gut that it was wrong, for example, to keep baby conch shells or lobsters full of eggs, you had no choice but to do it. You could no longer afford to fish in season, to let the sea replenish itself. You had to go out nearly every day, even on Fridays, and even as the seabed was disappearing, and the sea grass that used to nourish the fish was buried under silt and trash.
But he was not talking to the fabric vendor about fishing that night. They were talking about Claire. His relatives and his dead wife’s relatives, who lived in the villages in the surrounding mountains where he was born, were even poorer than he was, he was saying. If he died, sure they would take Claire, but only because they had no choice, because that’s what families do, because no matter what, fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt. We must all look after one another. But he was being careful, he said. He didn’t want to leave something as crucial as his daughter’s future to chance.
After the fabric vendor left, colorful sparks rose up from the hills and filled the night sky over the homes near the lighthouse, in the Anthère (anther) section of town. Beyond the lighthouse, the hills turned into a mountain, wild and green, and mostly unexplored because the ferns there bore no fruit. The wood was too wet for charcoal and too unsteady for construction. People called this mountain Mòn Initil, or Useless Mountain, because there was little there that they wanted. It was also believed to be haunted.
The fireworks illuminated the mushroom-shaped tops of the ferns of Mòn Initil as well as the gated two-story mansions of Anthère Hill. They also illuminated the clapboard shacks by the sea and their thatched and tin roofs.
Once the fabric vendor was gone, Claire and her father rushed out to see the lights exploding in the sky. The alleys between the shacks were jam-packed with their neighbors. With cannonlike explosions, Albert Vincent, the undertaker turned mayor, was celebrating his victory. But as her neighbors clapped in celebration, Claire couldn’t help but feel like she was the one who’d won. The fabric vendor had said no and she would get to stay with her father another year.

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Claire of the Sea Light 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Ash5 More than 1 year ago
Edwidge Danticat is a brilliant author. Claire of the Sea Light is an amazing book about what happens when a young girl disappears. As her father and the community search for her, secrets are revealed. There are many twists and turns to this novel. Five stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Danicat's characters are complex and the interweaving of their stories and relationships is simple and elegant. Her judicious use of words belies the density of the descriptions. She weaves in modern day Haiti and its paths to its present in subtle ways. Her use of the spiritual context that surrounds her characters and Haitian society is natural. One of her better works.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book after a friend suggested it to me. Edwidge Danticat's writing is elegant and transforming. She weaves a story filled with twists and turns and proves that lives are intermingled, even when we don't realize it. It is sad and horrifying at times, yet leaves you wanting more. There is a sweetness within the sadness, which makes it satisfying. After reading this I read Breath, Eyes, Memory and loved it as much, if not more. I have ordered three more of her books and cannot wait for them to arrive!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I fell in love with just reading the excerpt. wow, great job.Great Christmas gift.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting character(s) study, with societal changes and customs playing their part. Author manages this in a forthright, yet subdued way, without being preachy.
LynnLD More than 1 year ago
I would call this an island story where many of the lives of these Haitians are interwoven as their personal stories unfold.  The novel opens with everyone looking for Claire, a seven year old girl who disappears after her birthday party.  Her father, a widower, is about to give her away to a woman of means who he thinks can give her a better life.  As everyone is looking for Claire, a series of events and stories are happening simultaneously.  The subplots include tragedies such as murders, cover-ups; attempted suicides and radio exposures as readers hold their breath to see if Claire will reappear and face her life.
Ashtead More than 1 year ago
Well written, kept my interest throughout. Will look for more of her works. Very different as well as very compelling story. Good job!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I could not put it down. Edwidge is a great author. Looking forward to more of her works.
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Artichokes More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written but very depressing
Two2dogs More than 1 year ago
The story line jumps around too much but I am glad I bought and read this book, interesting culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Edwidge Danticat never dissappoints me. Love the book great story!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Used this as a book club selection. Most did not like the book but after discussion found they had not read it closely enough. Characters and location were easily visualized. The time shift made it difficult to follow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved/ enjoyed this book very much!!! The way it is written draws anyones attention. She goes back and fourth and each time you are wondering what is going to happen next. I was very pleased and would recommend this book to everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful language and engaging structure
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