The Company of Heaven: Stories from Haiti

The Company of Heaven: Stories from Haiti

by Marilene Phipps-Kettlewell

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Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s award-winning stories transport you to Haiti—to a lush, lyrical, flamboyant, and spirit-filled Haiti where palm trees shine wet with moonlight and the sky paints a yellow screen over your head and the ocean sparkles with thousands of golden eyes—and keep you there forever. Her singular characters mysteriously

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Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s award-winning stories transport you to Haiti—to a lush, lyrical, flamboyant, and spirit-filled Haiti where palm trees shine wet with moonlight and the sky paints a yellow screen over your head and the ocean sparkles with thousands of golden eyes—and keep you there forever. Her singular characters mysteriously address the deeper meanings of human existence. They also dream of escape, whether from themselves, from family, from Vodou, from financial and cultural difficulties and the politicians that create them, or from the country itself, but Haiti will forever remain part of their souls and part of the thoughts of her readers.

 Some characters do achieve escape through the mind or through sea voyage—escape found by surrendering to spectacular fantasies and madness and love, bargaining with God, joining the boat people. Marie-Ange Saint-Jacques’s mother sacrifices everything to ensure her daughter’s survival on a perilous boat trip, Angelina waits to fly away to Nou Yòk, Vivi creates her own circus with dozens of rescued dogs, Gustave dies a martyr to his faith. Throughout, the “I” who moves in and out of these dream-filled stories embraces the heavenly mysteries found in “the room where all things lost are stored with grace.”

We begin our journey to Haiti with images of a little girl in a pink bedroom reading by candlelight a book about the life of Saint Bernadette, surrounded by the bewitching scents, sounds, and textures of a Caribbean night. Each story stands by itself, but some characters can be followed from one story to another through the transformations they undergo as a result of their life experiences. In this way, the collection can be read as one story, the story of a family trapped in a personal and cultural drama and the story of the people with whom the family interacts, themselves burdened by the need to survive within Haiti’s rigorously class-determined society and blessed by their relationship to the company of heaven in which they live and for which they are destined.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Told rather than "written," Phipps-Kettlewell's tales are portraits of Haitian life. Since characters appear in multiple stories, and narrators rarely identify themselves, Haiti itself becomes a character. The prologue, a memory of childhood nights, evokes a sweep of sensation--cicadas and frogs, fireflies that resemble miniature angels, the touch of wood softened by vermin, the smell of the dark--that brings Haiti to vibrant life. Phipps-Kettlewell, whose previous book was verse, brings a poet's sensual acuity to her stories. "Dogs" tracks the descent into madness of a mother who has little time for her children, but fills her life and home with mongrel dogs. In "The Chapel," the building itself describes what has occurred within. The excellent novella, "River Valley Rooms," is a simple tale made complex by its formal daring; a collage of love and loss, it begins as a reminiscence of a homosexual brother but expands to depict complicated relationships with parents and lovers. Though Phipps-Kettlewell's lyrical, evocative, and lush style carries these stories, it can also create inertia; more attention to narrative would have made this truly a collection to treasure. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s The Company of Heaven heralds the fiction debut of a brilliant and insightful storyteller. With the sensitivities of the poet and visual artist that she is, Phipps-Kettlewell brings us these lyrical, funny, quirky, and memorable stories from the Haiti of both near and far. A book not to be missed, The Company of Heaven takes us to both heaven and hell and many places in between, but always with innovation, honesty, and grace.”—Edwidge Danticat

“Reading Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s The Company of Heaven is like happening on a book of psalms transcribed from some secret, fantastic, harrowed heart, somehow mineralized into language and somehow preserved for us to read. I was struck again and again by the lyrical, lamented, ‘lush but rotting’ but somehow also miraculously upheld world laid out before me. These stories are fraught and mysterious, and Phipps-Kettlewell’s art is to have preserved them so precisely in all their hard beauty.”—Paul Harding, author, Tinkers

“These are beautiful, richly textured stories; ‘painterly’ is the word that describes them best. What might be unbearable sadness after the devastation so recently suffered by Haiti becomes, in Marilène Phipps-­-Kettlewell’s hands, a testament of hope and resilience, of spirit and celebration. Like the people they are about, these stories will last.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Kirkus Reviews

Life in Haiti, before the recent earthquake but no less steeped in hardship and spiritual overcoming, is captured in interconnected stories by a gifted Haitian American. The book won the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award.

In sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes sharply ironic fashion, Phipps-Kettlewell writes of coping in a place where the lush surroundings are a constant reminder of how removed from paradise people are. Lives are routinely cut short by diseases that are treated too late or not at all, and casual murders that are never solved or avenged. Viewed through the author's intimate autobiographical lens, Haiti is a place where people with nothing to do become attuned to "the timelessness of time," where voodoo priests compete with corrupt politicians for influence, and where dreams of escape never die, even for those who fork over their life's savings to a returning djaspora whose boat to Miami has no chance of making it there with them. Broken into brief alternating sections, the longer stories, spanning years and generations, are compelling montages that reveal how family isredefined as orphaned children are passed to relatives, neighbors and even strangers. For one lonely old woman, a pack of dogs that sleeps nestled against her in strictly assigned positions become surrogate offspring. But as sad as the stories can get, the author's empathy for her resilient subjects, and her grasp of the human comedy in depicting the creative ways downtrodden people keep hope alive, makes the book unexpectedly entertaining.

Brilliantly evocative contemporary stories about Haiti told by a personable native.

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Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Iowa Short Fiction Award Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Painter, poet, and short story writerMarilène Phipps-Kettlewell was born and grew up in Haiti. She has held fellowships at the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Institute, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. In 1993, she won the Grolier prize for poetry. Her collection Crossroads and Unholy Water won the 1999 Crab Orchard Poetry Prize. Her short fiction has been published in Callaloo, the Crab Orchard Review, and the New Arcadia Review as well as The Best American Short Stories 2003.

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