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Claire of the Sea Light [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 ...

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Claire of the Sea Light

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Overview

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.

This edition includes a reading group guide. 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This is Edwidge Danticat's first novel in nine years, but she has not been forgotten: Her last book, the memoir Brother, I'm Dying was a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and a National Book Award finalist. In this widely anticipated new work, the Haitian-American writer returns to her native land with a story about a child whose brief life has already been punctuated by death and uncertainty. The mother of Claire Limyè Lanmè ("Claire of the Sea Light") lost her life in childbirth, leaving her father with the bitter question of whether he can keep her. Circling from past to present and then back again, the fiction both invites us into its sinuous prose and haunts us with the gathering suspense about her future. Certain to receive wide critical attention.

Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
As a native Haitian, Danticat (Brother, I'm Dying) is known for taking an innate cultural understanding and mixing it with a spare, striking writing style, always with marvelous results. The setting for her latest is Ville Rose, a small coastal town in Haiti, where baby Claire is born as her mother dies in childbirth. The novel begins on Claire's seventh birthday and then flows back in time, revisiting previous birthdays and their parallel events. In the village, life and death coexist in heartrending fashion, and the people live with the understanding that any one of them may be instantly and forever altered by natural forces, irrational acts, or simple circumstances. As Claire's father, a poor fisherman, makes a difficult decision, personal histories converge and the village comes together both to mourn a death and to save a life. Throughout, everything seems to be driven by the mystical power of the sea, for which Claire is named. VERDICT 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. [See Prepub Alert, 2/4/13.]—Susanne Wells, Indianapolis
The New York Times Book Review - Deborah Sontag
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.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
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…Like the author's powerful 2004 novel, The Dew Breaker, this 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.
Publishers Weekly
In this gorgeous, arresting, and profoundly vivid new novel, Danticat once again tells a story that feels as mysterious and magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel. Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) is turning seven, and yet her birthday has always been marked by both death and renewal. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and she has been raised by her fisherman father in a shack near the sea. The book begins there—in the shack, on the morning of her 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 to a wealthy businesswoman who lost her own daughter, and the heartbreaking question of Claire’s fate adds to the novel’s suspense, as both the past, and this single day, unfold. In the meantime, Danticat (Krik? Krak!) paints a stunning portrait of this small Haitian town, in which the equally impossible choices of life and death play out every day. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Nicole Aragi Agency. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
Claire of the Sea Light doesn’t have a dull moment. Danticat’s captivating visual descriptions of Ville Rose, a seaside town in Haiti, engulf the reader’s psyche. But it’s the core human struggles that make it impossible to put the novel down . . . She brilliantly sheds light on an array of human issues with sexuality, identity, politics, class . . . A heartfelt journey.” —Zayda Rivera, New York Daily News
 
“[An] extraordinary talent in full flower . . . . There’s a Faulknerian quality to Claire of the Sea Light, in the way it examines and presents the lives, plural, and life, singular collective, of a specifically imagined local community from multiple points of view, showing how human stories and lives ramify through and across each other in ways both touching and tragic . . . Astonishing . . . True and beautiful.” —Ethan Casey, The Huffington Post
 
“Intoxicating . . . Compelling . . . Illuminating . . . Danticat’s substantive work of fiction powerfully explores a vast array of human emotions . . . With great sensitivity and compassion, Danticat evokes the complexity of these giant emotions in women, men and children . . . A book of many triumphs, poignant and vivid, [that] reminds us just how powerful certain moments can be, and that whether these moments are precious, tragic, wishful, or frightening, they may mysteriously lead to a life both beautiful and uncorrupted.” —Suzanne Reeder, BookBrowse
 
“Not just a novel about a missing girl—a look at the intersections of loss, longing and place . . . The novel bubbles over with secrets. The concluding image is one of resuscitation. . . Claire of the Sea Light is a stylistic achievement; the beautiful prose, captivating story and intricate narrative structure are to be savored.” —Julie Hakim Azzam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“There is no such thing as Haiti. Or, as Danticat makes clear in Claire of the Sea Light, there is no such thing as one Haiti, no single truth. Danticat has been fixing and unfixing her native country since the appearance of her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory. She is a writer inhabited, a writer dedicated to opening her reader’s eyes to something she keeps trying to see for herself.  The characters of this novel are vivid and intensely personal. If you hope for a glimmer of Haiti; if you understand that to care about Haiti is also to lose it, to mourn it; or, to care about Haiti is to breathe and taste it and to sigh and delight; if you can bear to face the deep uneasiness of the impossible, then you will know you are blessed by Edwidge Danticat.” —Susanna Sonnenberg, San Francisco Chronicle

Claire of the Sea Light is Danticat’s first novel since the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed so much of the country . . . The stories are set in a near, undefined past, but there’s a distinct sense that most of what Danticat is describing is now gone. There are no omens or soothsayers, and the richness of the place—the tropical vegetation, the precise placement of shops and homes, the Biblical presence and span of family trees—is often a source of joy. But it’s difficult not to imagine a grieving Danticat cataloging these as the losses she and other Haitians have suffered . . . Danticat has always portrayed Haiti with a careful lushness, but in Claire of the Sea Light she seems to have a new fervor.” —Dwyer Murphy, Guernica

“Haunting . . . the images in Claire of the Sea Light have the hard precision and richly saturated colors of a woodblock print or folk art painting: a great, Hokusai-like wave; a group of girls singing and dancing on the beach; a solitary woman standing alone by the cemetery gate . . . Like Danticat’s powerful novel The Dew Breaker, this book uses overlapping tales to create an elliptical but propulsive narrative. The title character is a 7-year-old girl, whose mother died giving birth to her. The perennial subjects in Danticat’s fiction and nonfiction—the weight of Haiti’s violent history, its extreme poverty and the diaspora that they have created—are addressed indirectly, through the stories of Claire and her family and neighbors in this small town where everyone knows everybody else. 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, Danticat recounts [their] stories in crystalline prose that underscores the parallels in their lives. One family after another is fractured by accidental death, by murder or by exile. Death and loss haunt characters in this novel, shadowing them like dogged ghosts. . . . In her memoir Brother, I’m Dying, Danticat wrote about her own sense of abandonment as a child, when first her father and then her mother left for New York, leaving her with relatives. In Danticat’s own story, and this novel’s story of Claire, love endures in the face of death and departure and disappointment.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Haunted by ghosts and grief, lifted by magic and love . . . Danticat takes the reader deep into [Ville Rose’s] past and the intricate, sometimes shocking connections among its people . . . She paints each of her characters and their town with vivid detail and lyrical language. The book’s plot unfolds not in a straight line but like the petals of a rose, stories one within another, each connected. Claire of the Sea Light is at times heartbreaking, but like the child whose name it bears, it is lit with its own inextinguishable glow.” —Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
 
“Danticat is the literary voice of the Haitian diaspora who has won wide acclaim—a writer who can interpret both cultures and has a keen eye for the tensions between them. Claire of the Sea Light explores the interconnected lives of the inhabitants of a small coastal town in Haiti, yet even within this intensely local narrative, questions of exile and cultural identity are often hovering in the background . . . [It is] a complicated narrative of love, loss, murder and revenge, a web of relationships that transcend class and social divisions . . . Through Claire, the novel becomes a paean to whatever is sacred in the earth and water of this particular place. Claire of the Sea Light is written in the delicate, poetic style that Danticat is known for, which lends this story a fable-like quality. A rich story that provides a glimpse of modern Haiti, as well as a sense of its enduring spirit.” —Maria Browning, Nashville Scene
 
Claire of the Sea Light moves from character to character, sometimes skipping through time, to portray the lives of a small Haitian town. Danticat’s approach rewards the reader with a series of revelations. The relationship at the heart of this book is affecting . . . Breathtaking.” —Tobias Carroll, Time Out New York
 
“With glorious prose, Danticat’s latest novel paints a stunning picture of a small Haitian town and the secrets that emerge when a spirited young girl disappears on her seventh birthday.” —Entertainment Weekly
 
“A gorgeous novel that, through death, explores what it means to be alive . . . Danticat’s sly humor in disarming asides leavens the portent without upsetting the book’s sea-foam delicacy.” —B. Caplan, Miami New Times
 
Claire of the Sea Light reads like the work of a writer eager to create another world . . . A sense of the possibilities is tangible, where Danticat delves into parenting, revenge, reconciliation and remorse. Claire Limyè Lanmè is the daughter of a widower who is mulling whether or not to let someone else raise his daughter. In this small town, other mothers and fathers are working through reconciling their feelings about parenthood while readers experience a day in her life. Simultaneously, Danticat masterfully weaves in necessary parts of the past.” —Joshunda Sanders, Kirkus

“For someone born in Port-au-Prince, the temptation to rage at the public’s fickle concern [for Haiti] must be immense. But in 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 . . . Danticat is no magical realist—the peculiarities of this gorgeous, gruesome place are magic enough—but she builds her novel around the uncanny tragedies that accumulate on the anniversary of Claire’s birth . . . Danticat is a writer you can trust. 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 . . . Tightly wound threats of hunger and terror, delight and dread, vibrate through these pages . . . 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. Hearing the villagers searching for the little girl on the night of her birthday, the headmaster’s distraught son can’t help but feel inspired. ‘The name was as buoyant as it sounded, the kind of name you said with love . . . the kind of name that had the power to make the sun rise.’ That’s a tall order for a name—or a novel. But it’s not beyond Danticat’s power.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

“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

“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, The Boston Globe

“Fiercely beautiful . . . Ville Rose is a fictional place, but it’s described here with the precision and detail of a work of literary nonfiction . . . The landscape of Ville Rose is as rich and varied as the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez . . . 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

“The fablelike delicacy, lyricism, and hypnotic prose of Danticat’s new novel [are] perfectly suited to its setting, the tragic and yet magical seaside town of Ville Rose . . . The title character is a 7-year-old girl who goes missing in the first chapter and stays missing until the very last pages, as a portrait of Ville Rose’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal reality is painted and a collision of fates inches closer . . . There is humor here alongside grief. Danticat’s work opens itself to a broader readership through her deft intertwining of the specific and the universal . . . In and out of bedrooms, graveyards, restaurants and bars, even the local radio station, she creates rich and varied interior lives for her characters . . . Over the years, Danticat has become the bard of the Haitian diaspora. [But] this book is firmly planted in her homeland, a fictional community whose comings and goings are less connected to any earthly destination as they are to the great beyond . . . Fantastical, heartbreaking.” —Deborah Sontag, The New York Times Book Review

“Danticat is as well known for her mastery of language as she is for tackling difficult subjects. With her latest novel, she takes a nuanced approach to Haiti’s complex legacies . . . She keeps the reader in suspense, introducing characters to reveal the ties that bind generations not only to each other but also to their vulnerable natural environment . . . Claire [is a] spirited waif wise beyond her years—as children raised in dire conditions often are. Her disappearance set[s] the stage for revelations of the intertwined lives of the disadvantaged and the privileged. It’s much too early to say whether Danticat has reached her prime as a writer, but with Claire of the Sea Light, she has written a mature love letter to her homeland.” —Gina Athena Ulysse, Ms.
 
“On her seventh birthday, a girl wakes up in a shack by the sea. She has no mother; her father, a fisherman, is considering giving her away. As that setup suggests, this novel has some of the feel of a fairy tale. But its ethereal qualities are offset by its stark portrayal of life in small-town Haiti; the combination makes for a lovely book to read, by the sea or anywhere else.” —Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine

“Raw, dark, poetic—Danticat at the top of her game . . . [She] has created a pulsing world of fictional characters—among them a radio talk-show host with ulterior motives; an undertaker turned mayor; and a prosperous local woman whose own daughter died in an accident [and] who agrees to care for Claire as her replacement child. Their haunting stories make up a web of relationships, coincidences, misunderstandings, and ambitions—a multifaceted Haitian love story in which the shimmering Caribbean is both friend and foe. Danticat is expert at subtly exploring such themes as the far-reaching consequences of poverty and the powerful bonds between parent and child. On these pages, the human heart is laid open and the secret contents of its chambers revealed in all their beauty and agony.” —Tayari Jones, O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Masterful storytelling. When Claire, the daughter of widowed fisherman, disappears on the night of her seventh birthday, [he] and his neighbors undertake a search for her that stirs painful memories and forces them to confront startling truths about their own lives. Chapters of the story alternate among narrators, [and] each of their stories is beautifully, unexpectedly intertwined with that of Claire and her parents. As Danticat’s narrative unspools with the swift cadence of a fable, it imparts shocking revelations about these intricately flawed characters . . . The unerring lyricism of Claire of the Sea Light illuminates the poignant struggle for ordinary connection and peace in a country of ravaged homes and hearts.” —Catherine Straut, Elle
 
“A haunting portrait of heartbreak and healing. . . One of Danticat’s finest novels . . . [She is] a powerhouse writer. . . Like the best works of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez and novelist Maryse Condé, Claire of the Sea Light fearlessly bends time and space, reality and fantasy. Yet the storyteller never loses control of the narrative—or our attention. And she uses fiction for spot-on social commentary about the ways in which Black girls—those who go missing and those whose innocence is stolen—are often invisible even when in plain sight. In the end, this provocative fable, which plays out in a single night, delivers us back to our real worlds, safe enough but somehow touched in ways we may not fully know for days to come.” —Patrik Henry Bass, Essence
 
“A fictionalized tale that will enthrall, of Claire, who goes missing on her seventh birthday . . .with descriptions so vivid, you’ll imagine you’re walking down a street in the Haitian village of Ville Rose. Danticat weaves her magic as we wrestle with what’s happened to Claire, and why everybody in town [has] a secret that has to do with her.” —Ebony

“The biggest questions in life flow from the pen of this brilliant novelist. In Claire of the Sea Light, Danticat folds the story into a package so preciously tight that we can tuck it in our hearts and keep it close and warm.” —Nikki Giovanni

“Nuanced . . . intricate . . . intimate . . . evocative. Danticat’s 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, there’s tremendous warmth in Danticat’s treatment of her characters, who are striving for human connection in a hard world. Both lyrical and clear-eyed—a rare and welcome combination.” —Kirkus

“As an ardent admirer of Edwidge Danticat’s writing, I opened Claire of the Sea Light as if it were a gift. My high expectations were met, and then surpassed. The story she has given us is at every turn surprising, shimmering, deft. It is a jewel—a remarkable book, as luminous as its title.” —Ann Patchett

“Highly anticipated . . . In interlocking stories moving back and forth in time, Danticat weaves a beautifully rendered portrait of longing in the small fishing town of Ville Rose in Haiti. . . . [Characters’] stories and lives flow beautifully one into another, all rendered in the luminous prose for which Danticat is known.” —Vanessa Bush, Booklist
 
“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. Claire Limyè Lanmè (‘Claire of the Sea Light’) is turning seven, and yet her birthday has always been marked by both death and renewal. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and she has been raised by her fisherman father in a shack near the sea. The book begins on the morning of her 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. In the meantime, Danticat paints a stunning portrait of this small Haitian town, in which the equally impossible choices of life and death play out every day.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 

Kirkus Reviews
Danticat's first fiction in nine years (The Dew Breaker, 2004, etc.): a snapshot of 21st-century Haiti in the form of stories unfolding around a little girl in the coastal town of Ville Rose. Claire's mother died in childbirth, and on the evening of her seventh birthday in 2009, her father, Nozias, a poor fisherman, agrees to give her to Madame Gaëlle, an affluent fabric vendor whose own daughter died three years earlier in a traffic accident. Claire runs off to think things over, and the narrative circles back to chronicle Gaëlle's pregnancy and the death of her husband in a random gang shooting. From there, we travel to Cité Pendue, a festering slum on the outskirts of Ville Rose, where Bernard Dorien's tentative steps toward a better life are violently halted after he is accused of complicity in that shooting. The intricate, sometimes-intimate interconnections between rich and poor in a small town are evident in the story of Bernard's friend Max Ardin Jr., son of the elite local private school's arrogant proprietor, and Flore, the family's maid, whom he raped and impregnated 10 years earlier. Flore gets her revenge by exposing his crime on the popular local radio program Di Mwen--Creole for "tell me." (Danticat makes evocative use of Creole's distinctive French/African cadences throughout, and the novel's title translates her protagonist's full Creole name, Claire Limyè Lanmè.) Louise George, host of Di Mwen, has her own reasons for humiliating the Ardins; motivations 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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

  • ISBN-13: 9780385349680
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/27/2013
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 22,248
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Brother, I’m Dying, a National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award finalist; Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner; and The Dew Breaker, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist and winner of the inaugural Story Prize. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in Miami.

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Read an Excerpt

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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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat’s beautifully told new work of fiction, which seamlessly weaves a complex web of lives in a fictional Haitian town on the night a seven-year-old girl goes missing.

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 chimè—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 Gaëlle and Rose, and even Odile and Henri? In each of these, who, if any, suffers more: parent or child?

7. Madame Gaëlle’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 Gaëlle, 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 Gaëlle, 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 Gaëlle 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 Limyè Lanmè 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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 25 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 29, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Edwidge Danticat is a brilliant author. Claire of the Sea Light

    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.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2013

    I fell in love with just reading the excerpt. wow, great job.Gre

    I fell in love with just reading the excerpt. wow, great job.Great Christmas gift.

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    Highly recommended

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    Highly Recommend!

    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!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    Good book club read

    Interesting character(s) study, with societal changes and customs playing their part. Author manages this in a forthright, yet subdued way, without being preachy.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 20, 2013

    Very interesting couldn't put it down

    Well written, kept my interest throughout. Will look for more of her works. Very different as well as very compelling story. Good job!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2013

    Ms. Danticat never disappoints.

    I loved this book. I could not put it down. Edwidge is a great author. Looking forward to more of her works.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2014

    Wonderful!

    Edwidge Danticat never dissappoints me. Love the book great story!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2014

    Used this as a book club selection. Most did not like the book b

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 12, 2014

    I would call this an island story where many of the lives of the

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2014

    Rikki

    We needa book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2014

    Jake

    Go to claire result two again

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2014

    It's all about you girl! On your sixteenth birthday! 'Cause...

    It's all about you, girl! Cause it's all about YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU! YA!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2014

    I loved/ enjoyed this book very much!!! The way it is written dr

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2014

    Perfect

    Beautiful language and engaging structure

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2013

    Bluestar

    Bios here.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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