One of Danticat’s most entrancing talents is her ability to capture conflicted feelings with a kind of aching sympathy. In a chapter about the fabric vendor’s grief, for instance, she writes, “Her losses had not made her stronger; they had made her weak. . . . She didn’t want to continue being weak, but she didn’t want to die either. She was too eager to see what would come next, what her husband and daughter had missed. She was both hungry for life and terrified of it.”
Those tightly wound threats of hunger and terror, delight and dread, vibrate through these pages. In one touching moment, for instance, Claire’s father first hears that his wife is pregnant: “He was a bit sad, and his sadness, mingled with intense joy, made him hold her tight again. How does life itself, as much as you must want it in your body, not feel futile when you have seen so many dead?”
All of Danticat’s characters confront that spiritual conundrum. The headmaster at the village thinks, “Life had become so cheap that you could give anyone a few dollars to snuff if out,” and yet he persists, determined to teach these children in a carefully maintained atmosphere of respect and order. Meanwhile, in a chapter of studied subtlety, the headmaster’s adult son struggles to reconcile his sexuality with others’ expectations, a predicament that inspires him to commit a beastly crime to prove his normalcy.
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 among these poor people. Hearing 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. It was the kind of name that 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 clap 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.”
That’s a tall order for a name — or a novel. But it’s not beyond Danticat’s power.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On Sept. 17 at 7 p.m., Edwidge Danticat will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.