Claire of the Sea Light (Danticat)

In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, she recalls an amazing image of her husband standing waist deep in their pool reading Sophie’s Choice in order to try to figure out how it works. That image prompted me to read Sophie’s Choice. It also reminds me of a writing exercise that I’d read about but never used until I read Danticat’s The Farming of Bones. I found a short chapter, fewer than 200 words, that just blew me away so I copied it into my journal. I’m not sure I figured out how it works, but I certainly enjoyed copying the words.

Danticat’s words are still music in her new novel. What’s different here is her plotting. (Upon reflection, maybe there are seeds of this approach in Krik? Krak!) Though Haiti and its challenges and beauty are always present (particularly the challenges and beauty of the sea), here her plot moves in a kind of circle (similar to Zadie Smith’s NW), starting with the Claire of the title and following her life as it intersects with others who live in Ville Rose before ultimately returning to Claire.

Some memorable passages –

Writing about the name Claire, she writes (118):

The name was as buoyant as it sounded. It was the kind of name you said with love, that you whispered in your woman’s ears the night before your child was born. It was the kind of name you could easily carry in your dreams, in your mouth, the kind of name that made you clasp your hands against your chest when you heard it being shouted out of so many mouths. It was the kind of name you might find in poems or love letters, or songs. It was a love name and not a revenge name. It was the kind of name that you could call out with hope. It was the kind of name that had the power to make the sun rise.

Read it again. Read it out loud. Writing about another character who has every reason to leave Ville Rose, except the money and the will, Danticat writes (160) –

She could not be dyaspora. She liked her ghosts nearby.

Later, when another character sympathizes with an old friend who has taken their child to live in Miami, the character asks (192):

How can some people not fully understand their ability to shatter hearts?

Who wouldn’t want to be kissed like this (203)?

He hadn’t been kissed by a woman in that way since his wife died, a kiss so pure that it felt like it was polishing him.

I had to pause to savor the word “polishing.”

And finally, in words that speak to my heart (214):

She disliked people too sometimes. She felt them moving around her, exchanging places. Sometimes she wished people, especially adults, were trees. If only trees could move. With trees, you’d have to be the one who moved around them. But trees didn’t cry. They didn’t complain.

If I could ask Danticat one question, I would ask why she translated all of the French and Creole. It’s her world. I don’t mind being a little lost as I swim in it.


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