Claire by the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat is a lyrically descriptive novel that intricately weaves seemingly unrelated characters and stories with each other. Danticat is a Haitian American writer who sets her novels in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemiphere that has seen its share of atrocities and disastrous natural events. The story begins with Claire of the Sea Light, a seven year old girl whose mother passed during the childbirth of Claire. Her father has raised her in spite of the difficulties because of the loss of maternal care. He often tries to have maternal influence and connections with the mother’s family; however, Claire realizes that these visits are insufficient. Her father decides that he needs to have someone “adopt” her so that she can have a better life. At the point of transfer, Claire mysteriously disappears at first thought into the sea. The next vignettes weave connections of different characters and their relation to each other. Most of the vignettes are macabre like, bordering on the French genre, danse macabre, which horrifically weaves stories of death with a central theme between each story. Beautifully, yet tragically told, the novel ends with a hint of optimism and ends with courage that the characters can face life’s disappointments and its challenges.
After the disappearance of Claire, the narrator details the connection of Madame Gaelle Lavaud, the woman who was to adopt Claire, with both Claire and her father Nozias. Madame Gaelle is pregnant with a baby that is not expected to live. Her doctor tells her that her baby is going to be still born. As the chapter progresses, one believes that the baby will die; but, with tragic irony, Gaelle’s husband, Laurent Lavaud, is shot and killed. According to the narrator, “The shots had rung out as Laurent was leaving the station, and he was struck by three bullets to the heart and died on the spot.” Madame Gaelle’s connection to Claire ‘s story is that at the point of Claire’s mother’s death, Madame Gaelle became the wet nurse for Claire. Madame knew Claire’s mother briefly, not intimately. In spite of their lack of closeness, Madame is responsible for Claire’s viability. Gaelle gives Claire life in spite of the enormity of the constant grief that she suffers as a result of the death of her husband. To connect the relation of the characters, the novel opens in the first few vignettes with a recantation of Claire’s mother’s death, with both the disappearance and assumed death of Claire, and with the brutal death of Laurent Lavaud, Gaelle’s husband.
Similarly, we encounter in the next vignette, Bernard Dorien who is tragically killed in a gang assault. The narrator tells us that “Bernard Dorien was found dead in the bed of his bedroom. He is murdered in the same way that Laurent Lavaud, the owner of the fabric shop had, with three bullets expertly, and, in Bernard’s case, silently, administered to the heart.” Gangs have invaded Ville Rose, the community in which this novel is set. Dorien, has a friend, Max Ardin Jr, who moves away before Dorien’s death. Danticat surreptitiously and creatively exposes the connection of these characters with others in the novel. Much later in the novel, Danticat intricately connects Claire with Max Ardin Jr, and explains the relation of Ardin with Bernard and the reason for his sudden departure.
Throughout the next series of vignettes, Danticat exposes the foibles and vices of other characters. We see that husbands are having covert affairs and some affairs that appear to be less covert. We see that Max Ardin Jr, has raped a worker in his parent’s home. His rape is exposed in a dramatic radio program as the woman in which Ardin is covertly seeing seeks revenge for an indignity that she believes she has suffered. Both Ardin Senior and Junior suffer a public humiliation as a result of their stealth actions that have now been exposed. Max Jr fathers a child as a result of rape. The narrator also touches upon the gay relationship that Ardin had with Bernard Dorien. His father tries to cover the rape. He is distraught because he is prohibited from becoming a father to his child. He cannot face the public humiliation and he desires to commit suicide. He goes out to sea and nearly drowns. He is rescued by Madame Gaelle and by Nozias who have spent time looking for Claire, who has disappeared possibly into the sea.
Lastly, Claire goes to a place, ” Inutile” defined in English as useless ; however, it becomes useful to Claire because she retreats to the top of Inutile where she is able to process the burgeoning new life that she can have with Madame Gaelle. If she takes her life, she wonders whether she will be missed. She realizes that her sorrow can be turned into hope. She sings a song with the lyrics, “She has to go home/To see the man/ Who’d crawled half dead/Out of the sea.” Through CPR, life is pumped back into Max Ardin Jr. Concurrently, life is pumped back into Claire of the Sea Light. At that point she grows into her name and just may possibly be the person who becomes the light to others through the offer of hope.
Through this beautifully crafted story one can see the interconnectedness of life. One event impacts the other just as we impact the lives, positively and negatively, of each other. Although this novel first appears to be about death, it is about how the characters are given a new chance at life in place of sorrow. One cannot help but hope that that same hope can be transferred to Haiti in spite of its gang violence and its random deaths.