The Edwidge Dandicat page consists of book reviews and articles.
From a Brutal Past Spent Shattering Lives in Haiti
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Haiti's bloody and bitter history of violence, corruption and
vengeance stalks all the characters in Edwidge Danticat's remarkable
new novel, infecting their dreams and circumscribing their expectations.
It is a nightmare they are all trying in vain to rewind and erase.
The title character, the so-called Dew Breaker, is a seemingly
ordinary Haitian immigrant living a willfully quiet life in Brooklyn
with his wife and daughter. But he is hiding a terrible secret:
back in the 1960's in Haiti he was a member of the dreaded Tontons
Macoute, the blood-soaked enforcers of François Duvalier's
The Dew Breaker's name came from the fact that he and his henchmen
would usually arrive "before dawn, as the dew was settling
on the leaves" to abduct victims from their homes; he tortured
and killed untold numbers of innocents, including a much-loved
preacher who dared to speak out against the government. The scar
on his face is both a mark of Cain and a reminder of his violent
The other people in this book — who, we gradually learn,
are members of the Dew Breaker's family and former victims and
their family members — are equally in thrall to the past.
Whether they have stayed in Port-au-Prince or left for the United
States to try to write a second act to their lives, they all find
themselves haunted by the long events that left them with broken
bodies, fractured families or smashed hopes. For these characters
the dead are not merely ghosts; they are palpable, intimately
felt presences in their daily lives.
In her earlier books "Breath, Eyes, Memory," "Krik?
Krak!" and "The Farming of Bones," Ms. Danticat,
who was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she
was 12, demonstrated an ability to use her lyric gift of language
and her emotional clarity to show how the public and the private,
the personal and the political are intertwined in the lives of
Haitians and Haitian-Americans, and to show how the past anchors
and hobbles the present.
"The Dew Breaker" not only showcases these same qualities,
but it is also Ms. Danticat's most persuasive, organic performance
yet. As seamless as it is compelling, the novel recounts its harrowing
tale in limpid, understated prose, using a looping structure of
overlapping stories to tell the Dew Breaker's story by indirection.
It is a tale that uses its characters' experiences as a prism
to examine Haiti's own difficulties in breaking free from a centuries-old
cycle of violence and vengeance that continues through today,
a tale that simultaneously unfolds to become a philosophical meditation
on the possibility of redemption and the longing of victims and
victimizers alike to believe in the promise of new beginnings
held forth by the American Dream.
Ms. Danticat gives us few direct glimpses of the Dew Breaker.
Instead we see him through the eyes of others: former victims,
who believe they have seen him, their tormentor, walking the streets
of Brooklyn, an evil spirit come back to torment them; his wife,
Anne, a devout woman who believes in miracles and the miracle
of his transformation; and their Americanized daughter, who has
grown up thinking of him as an ordinary father, a man she can
love and rebel against like any other child.
The Dew Breaker calls his daughter ka — the ancient Egyptian
word for the soul; he sees her and her mother as good angels,
his rescuers from his past. When he confesses his past to his
daughter, she immediately wonders if he is "going to explain
why he and my mother have no close friends, why they've never
had anyone over to the house, why they never speak of any relatives
in Haiti or anywhere else, or have never returned there or, even
after I learned Creole from them, have never taught me anything
else about the country beyond what I could find out on my own,
on the television, in newspapers, in books?"
Each tale in "The Dew Breaker" could stand on its own
as a beautifully made story, but they come together like jigsaw-puzzle
pieces to create a picture of this man's terrible history and
his and his victims' afterlife. Some of the puzzle pieces are
missing of course, but this is a matter of design. It is a measure
of Ms. Danticat's fierce, elliptical artistry that she makes the
elisions count as much as her piercing, indelible words.
The New York Times, March 10, 2004.]
Room for the Living
Hallucinatory vigor and a sense of mission -- these are what,
in her best moments, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat
brings to her sobering novel about ''two different peoples trying
to share one tiny piece of land.''
The setting is the border country of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola
and the year is 1937, a place and time when the longstanding hostility
between the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti, is about
to erupt into bloodshed, carefully orchestrated by the Dominican
dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina. But Amabelle Desir, the Haitian
housemaid who is the novel's narrator, gives little credence to
the rumors of imminent violence. Instead, her focus is on the
worries of her immediate household.
Amabelle's Dominican mistress, Senora Valencia, is still recovering
after giving birth to twins, then quickly losing one of them to
crib death. In addition, a field laborer from a nearby sugar cane
plantation has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the
Senora's soldier husband is the culprit. As Amabelle and her Haitian
lover, Sebastien Onius (who witnessed the killing), are drawn
into the funeral arrangements for the dead man, they must consider
the matter of avenging his death. And facing this crisis also
means acknowledging what they mean to each other. In short, there's
drama enough in Amabelle's immediate vicinity to distract her
from whatever larger fate the Generalissimo has in mind for his
country's Haitian minority -- until the slaughter begins, and
she and Sebastien become separated in their efforts to escape
Danticat -- the author of one earlier novel, ''Breath, Eyes, Memory,''
and a story collection, ''Krik? Krak!'' -- capably evokes the
shock with which a small personal world is disrupted by military
mayhem. Even the title of ''The Farming of Bones'' reflects this
duality, referring both to the grueling work that takes place
on the sugar cane plantations and, implicitly, the massacre to
come. Despite this complex shading, the novel doesn't consistently
achieve the nimble intensity of Danticat's strongest work in ''Krik?
The trouble, perhaps, is that Danticat's storytelling invention
has been inhibited by the respect she has for her novel's historical
sources. It is surely telling that the prickly yet affectionate
servant-mistress bond between Amabelle and Senora Valencia (Amabelle
always refers to her as ''Senora,'' even though the women grew
up together) feels more astutely observed than the relationships
among the Haitian characters, who are too uniformly noble to be
entirely convincing. It also feels contrived when, in a flashback,
Danticat orphans the young Amabelle on the Dominican-Haitian border
during peacetime, although the account of her parents' death is
unsettling enough to work.
There are technical oddities as well that detract from the power
of Danticat's story. The novel opens with what appear to be two
alternating narrators -- suggested by different typefaces and
contrasting prose styles. Yet it soon becomes clear that both
voices belong to Amabelle, a device that seems miscalculated and
unnecessary. More worrying are moments when the book's dialogue
smacks of historical-epic-speak. (''Do you know that you can trust
him who offered this place to you?'')
Thankfully, there's no such creakiness in most of the descriptive
prose. Danticat knows the value of understatement in bringing
nightmarish scenes to life, and a spare, searing poetry infuses
many of the book's best passages. The randomness of death; the
second-guessing about where safety lies; the silence after an
act of butchery in a remote mountain farm: all are eerily evoked,
as is the fluid heedlessness of a crowd's hysteria when Trujillo
appears in a border town at the height of the violence.
Some readers will wish that Danticat had supplied more information
on the wider context of Haitian-Dominican animosity, including
the two countries' long history of mutual invasion. But her primary
concern is to depict the unfortunate lot of the Haitian migrant
laborers who have only ''the cane to curse, the harvest to dread,
the future to fear,'' and who have no politics beyond an instinctive
clan loyalty and the need to seek work wherever it might be.
''The Farming of Bones'' doesn't end with the massacre. Rather,
Danticat probes its aftermath in scenes that, although lacking
the momentum of the book's earlier chapters, vividly convey the
strangeness of the survivors' plight and the sense of unfinished
business in what is left of their lives: the marriages that might
have been, the savings that went up in smoke. At times, the novel
reads like a small-scale ''Gone With the Wind,'' retold from the
servants' point of view. It also provides an unnerving reminder
that the appalling rationale and logistics of ''ethnic cleansing''
have been with us for a very long time.
Not surprisingly, given her subject matter, Danticat's customary
wry wit is present only in small doses -- as when Amabelle, a
spur-of-the-moment midwife helping to deliver Senora Valencia's
second twin, remarks, ''I was feeling more experienced now.''
Later there is also a hideous dark humor in the absurd minutiae
of persecution: the pronunciation test given to suspected Haitians
whose inability to trill the Spanish ''r'' in ''perejil'' (''parsley'')
could result in a death sentence.
In these and other passages, ''The Farming of Bones'' offers ample
confirmation of Edwidge Danticat's considerable talents. Yet her
finest work has led us to expect even more.