Birthdays carry burdens for young Claire. Each year, her beleaguered father takes her from their shack in a seaside Haitian village to visit the grave of her mother, who died giving birth. Claire's seventh birthday dawns with an additional portent, as a fisherman drowns off the coast, the victim of a freak wave. By day's end, her life and those of several others also will be transformed.
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Everything changes when the local fabric shop owner suddenly turns up. The woman nursed Claire as an infant and had a daughter who died a few years back on this very same date. She arrives and finally agrees to adopt the young girl. Claire's father, increasingly worried about raising a daughter by himself, long campaigned for this moment.
Upon hearing the arrangements, Claire takes off into the dark and disappears.
From these familiar ingredients — a simple setting and a small human drama — the novelist Edwidge Danticat begins unfolding the increasingly complex story of "Claire of the Sea Light." Danticat, the much-lauded Haitian-American author of "Krik? Krak!" and "The Farming of Bones" as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir "Brother, I'm Dying," hurls us back from that unhappy birthday in 2009 into stops along the past decade. She spins out the stories of a handful of lives, which all come together in some form on the beach that night in tiny Ville Rose.
The fabric seller, it turns out, is mourning not only her daughter's death, but her husband's as well. He was killed accidentally in a gang retaliation at a radio station. That radio station serves as introduction to Louise George, host of the program "Di Mwen" ("Tell Me"). The show acts as a sort of public confessional for any islander with an emotional story to tell. It's also a magnet for gossip-hungry listeners.
In the novel's endless series of connections, she is the conduit to Max Ardin Sr., an elegant schoolmaster and her occasional lover. His preoccupation remains his son, Max Jr., who recently returned to Haiti, having fled many years earlier from a couple of dark secrets. Upon his arrival, his father arranges a confrontation between him and the housemaid he impregnated a decade before. Their "reunion," complete with the son he's never met, is awkwardly painful. It only gets worse when the maid takes her story to "Di Mwen."
And on it goes, one life story feeding into others.
"Claire of the Sea Light" offers much to admire. In concise — often poetic — prose the intertwined narratives teasingly unspool, revealing surprising intersections. Throughout, Danticat creates a magical sense of a place and exposes the powerful hold that a location — even somewhere as poor and unremarkable as Ville Rose — can exert. She shows its connection to nature, food and the spirit world. When the frogs of the village start mysteriously dying one year, the people receive scientific explanations, but they (and you) can't help but wonder whether something less rational is going on.
Even Claire herself is mysterious. They call her a "revenan," a child whose spirit struggled victoriously with her mother's during birth. If they are not closely watched, revenans can "easily follow their mothers into the other world."
The book incisively explores the bonds that tie people together — and sometimes tear them apart. Danticat is especially good at providing a shifting meditation on parental love: getting inside Claire's father's head as he decides her fate, delving into the complicated father/son relationship of the Ardins and dissecting the motives of the woman who says she'll take Claire.
The problem with the novel, which has an airy, almost folktale-ish tone throughout, is that it doesn't ultimately amount to much. The ambition here is clearly something larger than an artfully connected series of stories. Yet good as the individual pieces and parts may be (and Danticat has always been a strong miniaturist), they don't strongly cohere. Yes, people's lives are interconnected. And yes, things that happened many years ago can find resonance in the present. No surprises there.
Strangely enough, Claire — ostensibly the hub of all this activity — is offstage for almost the entire book. She emerges again toward the end, still in the midst of her terrible birthday. During her brief flight, however, she has grown a bit wiser and realized a few simple truths about herself and her home.
Her findings are modestly intriguing, as are those scattered throughout the novel, but none come close to carrying the punch that the knockout opening scenes call for — or promise.
John Barron is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Oak Park.
"Claire of the Sea Light"
By Edwidge Danticat, Knopf, 238 pages, $25.95